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Do You Know What to Do or Say When Facing a Client in Grief or Transition?

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It is inevitable. As a professional with long-term clients, soon or later you will be face-to-face with a client in grief or transition. What do you do? What do you say?

If you find yourself at a loss for words, you are not alone. There has never been a financial advisor’s guide that explains what to say (or what not to say) and how to handle these potentially challenging and professionally awkward situations.

When I became a 25-year-old widow with a 7-month-old baby boy, believe me, no one knew the right thing to do or say around me, including the financial professionals I needed to rely on. And I’ve heard the same stories countless times since then, from more than 2000 grieving people. Instead, what most professionals do is either ignore the painful reality and stick to business, or pick up what other people say and inadvertently perpetuate the mistakes. 

You can do better than that. You can learn to do the right things and offer genuine comfort and support, no matter what your clients go through. 

One example: 

It is never a good idea to say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through” because you don’t. You are always wrong, and you will alienate your client immediately. What professionals often say instead is “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” That is better, and in the past, I have endorsed that phrase.

However, as I continue to get feedback from research and in my support groups, I find that many grieving people don’t appreciate it. They especially resent it when, as sometimes happens, the words are dripping with drama – “I can’t IMAGINE what this is like for you!” Yet even if you take care not to go over the top when you say it, you risk isolating people. They hear your implication that they are so crazy or outside the realm of normalcy that no one else can even imagine what it’s like. And since no one can imagine it, no one can be there and help. It builds a moat around your grieving client that can’t be crossed.  

Besides, it ultimately is not true. We have very active emotional imaginations. Most of us can indeed imagine something of the pain and loss, the empty chair, the unanswered phone. In fact, imagining it is one key to building empathy, which is core to who we are as human beings and serves a crucial function in binding us together in mutually helpful ways. 
So if you aren’t supposed to say “I know how you feel” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”, what do you say instead?

Consider asking one of the following questions, modified for the situation if necessary:

  • “I’m trying to imagine what you’re going through – would you like to tell me?” 
  • “I think if my child died, my body would actually hurt and I’d wonder whether I could trust the view I’ve always had of life. Is it anything like that, or what is your experience?”
  • “You probably have people telling you that they can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you could enter their imaginations and tell them, what would you want them to know?” 
     

Never assume you know what someone else is experiencing.

Instead, ask open-ended questions and allow a grieving client to tell you, and then let your imagination take you as close as possible. That allows you to respond more effectively and serve your clients in ways others don’t know how to do.

When you know how to walk your clients through the toughest times of life, you build trust, loyalty, and referrals.

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