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Mourning lessons

Matt Pais

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What to say — and not say — when handling grieving clients and their death claims.

A client named Mike calls you and says his 16-year-old son has died. He was driving too fast on the highway and lost control of his car. Taking out a life insurance policy on his child, Mike says, is what prompted this course of events.

In other words: His son’s death is your fault.

“That was hard for me to take and listen to,” remembered Stuart Birkel, CSA, LACP, of the call, the first of 442 death claims that the 12-year MDRT member from Norfolk, Virginia, has served in the last 25 years. “But I’m not going to hang up on the guy. He’s grieving; I understood that. I let him talk and said I was really sorry for his loss.”

Learning to listen

Birkel doesn’t tell that story to many new advisors, not wanting to suggest that most death claims go that way. (They don’t.) But there is a useful component to the anecdote in a profession where advisors often say the impact of their role does not crystallize until serving their first death claim: In an uncomfortable position where Birkel might have fumbled for something to say or attempted to defuse the client’s feelings, he instead listened and showed he cared.

It’s a crucial and easily overlooked behavior when communicating with a person who has just experienced a loss, said David Kessler, a globally recognized grief counselor who has been praised by no less than Mother Teresa.

I think clients realize how important they are to me when I'm honest with my reactions to a death.
— Beth Hesson

“That person wants you to understand the shock and pain,” Kessler said. “Somehow, as caregivers we do the opposite in that we want to make the griever feel better.”

Beth Lachance Hesson, CLU, CFP, a 24-year MDRT member from Midhurst, Ontario, Canada, knows this. Having dealt with an estimated 500 death claims, Hesson has seen, for example, people learn someone died from lung cancer and then ask if the deceased was a smoker. “It suggests they deserved it,” she said. “People don’t know what to say; they’re nervous. You just have to let them talk and tell you what happened.”

In fact, Hesson advocates that, rather than attempting to console, there is value in showing the clients you’re human, even if that means shedding a tear yourself. “Some people say, ‘I have to be brave for clients, to support them and not show weakness,’” she said. “I think clients realize how important they are to me when I’m honest with my reactions to a death. I’ve actually had times where a widower is reassuring me, ‘You’ve taken such good care of us, Beth. It’s going to be OK.’”

Bringing pain out instead of in

It all speaks to the difference between driving grief inward and allowing someone to mourn outwardly, said Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., the director for the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. To go forward, he said, people who are grieving first need to go backward — and it is the advisor’s job to know the difference between sympathy (passively suggesting you are sorry) and empathy (engaged effort to understand what the client is going through).

“I see a number of people told, ‘You should be thankful; a lot of people don’t make it to that age,’ which results in having their grief disenfranchised, not socially supported,” he said. “I always say I should write a book called ‘True, But Not Helpful.’”

Instead, perhaps simply ask, “How did you meet your husband?” and let them tell their story. “As long as they know you’re genuine, people love to go backward and will often smile through their tears,” Wolfelt said.

That doesn’t mean you can’t say things that are complimentary or that acknowledge the process of moving forward. But there is a difference between “Be glad you had him as long as you did” and, as Hesson says, “Your husband loved you and took very good care of you; we have some things in place, and whenever you’re ready, I’d like to go over them.”

Matching the process to the person

Plus, it is important to recognize that your clients may struggle to reconcile their feelings regarding the money they will receive. Some, Kessler said, may be conflicted or even unhappy about it.

“Maybe they and their husband were very frugal and hoped in their retirement they could go to Hawaii but were saving for that $5,000 trip,” he said. “And now you have a widow with $100,000 who says, ‘I could do all those things we wanted to do, but I don’t have him.’” Advisors can play an important part in helping clients find meaning behind how they use this money, Kessler added, whether for personal use, funding a scholarship or giving to charity. In any case, it’s important for them to know their spouse wouldn’t want the money to bring them unhappiness.

That’s why it is so crucial to keep in mind the same principle that’s applied to clients in any situation but may be neglected when dealing with something as painful as death: You work with each of your clients as individuals. Just as no two people have the exact same goals and feelings about their financial situation, no two people grieve alike either.

“Our grief is as individual as our fingerprint,” Kessler said. “Even in the same family, the griefs are not the same because you had a different relationship with dad than your brother did.”

The biggest three-letter word

Of course, there are valuable approaches to keep in mind for each client. One of the biggest insights Birkel learned took years to acquire (thanks to a seminar on grief) and a lot of courage to implement the first time: using the word “die.”

“I was nervous as heck to say it,” Birkel recalls, having previously always asked clients “How did they pass?” or expressing condolences with “I’m sorry they left us.” “It left it too open-ended for me, and I found that the clients would take a lot longer in making a decision on what they might need to do, as opposed to me stating ‘When your spouse died,’” he said. “The more succinct you can be, the faster they get through the grieving process.”

A lot of times, though, Birkel just, in his words, “shows up and shuts up.” This is how he knows where the client is emotionally for their first in-person meeting after a preliminary phone call (when Birkel indicates a claim form will need to be signed after there is a death certificate).

While some clients may say “I’m not ready to talk about money yet,” others may very quickly move the conversation to worrying about their income and what they can do about it. He is careful to work according to their timeline, never pushing them into making a decision. He has had clients come back two years after going through the death claim, only then wanting to discuss new income strategies. In the meantime, Birkel checks in every three months.

3 things not to say to grieving clients

He’s in a better place now.

— Hesson

Any sentence that begins with ‘At least,’ like ‘At least she’s not sick anymore,’ is going to minimize their pain and increase the likelihood of them feeling hurt.

— Kessler

God wouldn’t give you anything more than you can bear.

— Wolfelt

Be proactive and prepared

However, Hesson has learned the value of ensuring both parts of a couple are there for any financial discussions so that everyone knows the situation in the event of a death. One client came in to Hesson’s office after her husband died and said, “Beth, I want to make sure I’m able to keep my house.” In fact, the client’s husband had completely paid for the house, but his wife didn’t know that.

“I want to make sure I can educate not just the person buying the policy but the person the policy is bought for,” Hesson said.

This is also instrumental for peace of mind before death. One client told Hesson that her late husband was so worried that their coverage wouldn’t be enough to leave behind after he died. Their policies had actually grown significantly, but they hadn’t done a review, and the widow would have felt better if her husband had known she’d be taken care of.

“It really hit me that I should have been there to make them aware of the protection they had,” Hesson said. “And how important the service calls are not just for the widow but for the person that’s going to be leaving us.”

We really don’t know what the important moments are until we look back.
— David Kessler

For all clients who have lost a loved one, Birkel sends a series of three books about grief, which he hopes will both bring comfort as well as show how much he cares. He also gives out poinsettias every holiday season to those who have lost their spouse, knowing that time of year will be particularly hard without their husband or wife around.

Of course, he keeps two boxes of Kleenex in his office as well, but not as a replacement for personal connection. The tissues should be in reach if needed, but not shoved at them, Kessler said. “Shoving tissues at people is a way of saying, ‘Stop crying,’” he said. “If a person cries in my presence and they start to say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ I say, ‘Don’t be sorry; those are tears of love.’”

No matter what, it’s clear that advisors play a large role in clients’ lives. Hesson would have retired five years ago but feels it is important to be there for her clients as they age and need her more. And Birkel still finds himself surprised that sometimes he knows someone has died or is going to die before that person’s family members do. It emphasizes the need to be ready for any conversation, and how impactful it is when you are prepared.

“Any moment can be a last moment, and sometimes we think we’re going to save up the good stuff for those important moments in life,” noted Kessler, who works with people on legacy planning. “We really don’t know what the important moments are until we look back.”  

When working with grieving clients...

  1. Be aware of how loss has influenced your life and your own need to mourn. That will help you understand the significance of your clients’ needs as well.
  2. Recognize “nodal events” that may be of particular emotional importance to your clients. These may be the couple’s anniversary, the birthday of a person who died or that person’s favorite holiday season. Advisors may want to reach out to say they are thinking of the surviving client at that time.
  3. If it’s a sudden death, you’ll likely see intensified and longer grief with more intense emotions.
  4. If you didn’t know the person who died very well, simply say something like, “I didn’t know your husband very well. Tell me a little bit about him.”

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