As I take my leisurely walk with my dog through the older section of the local cemetery, I pause to read the details on the barely legible, weathered headstones. I am fascinated with the dates, for I know each stone has a story to tell, a history of its own time and place, but only enough space for identity. Proceeding up the rolling asphalt pathway, I am led into the new section of the cemetery. It becomes crystal clear as I compare the cemetery’s old sections with the new, Americans are living longer.
The aging of people in the US over the next three decades will have a huge impact on the way financial planners conduct business. Most baby boomers will reach retirement age over the next 30 years, causing rapid growth of the population over age 65.
According to the 1999 National Vital Statistics Reports, a total of 2,391,399 deaths occurred in the United States in that year. The age-adjusted death rate, which eliminates the effects of the aging of the population, was 881.9 deaths per 100,000. In 2001, a total of 2,416,425 deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted death rate was 854.5 deaths per 100,000 (U. S. Census Bureau 1999, 2001).
As the facts are stated, the financial planning community will be working with much older clients in years to come. This will dramatically change the structure and methods used to create a successful long-term relationship. We will have to re-think our strategies in order to accommodate the client’s ever-evolving needs, both financial and emotional.
Throughout an active career it is inevitable that most of us in providing financial advice will come into contact with grieving clients at some time. When this opportunity presents itself, we can play an instrumental role in the healing process. Done properly, the value added to the client relationship will be strengthened and your personal rewards will be extraordinary. Done improperly, the client could be adversely affected, both emotionally and financially, possibly creating severe consequences.
Adding to the complexity of mourning is the agonizing process of dealing with the financial realities. Most often the surviving spouse has to accept the ongoing obligations of the family and business financial commitments. Moreover, when children are involved, the larger issues become their health and financial welfare.
The financial advisor has many tasks to perform in a relatively short period of time. Important financial decisions need to be made, in some cases immediately. Life insurance policies, investment accounts, trusts, wills, deeds, debts, employee benefits, change in beneficiaries, Social Security benefits and budgetary issues, just to mention a few. When needed, the advisor will request the assistance of an attorney and a tax accountant to settle the estate.
The confidence and guidance of a trusted financial advisor is crucial at this time so the grieving client will be less burdened and therefore make fewer financial mistakes. We should also recognize that we have additional responsibilities due to the long-term nature of the relationship. The mental health of the client is as important as the financial health.
The financial-planning-community, banks, brokerage firms, CPA’s, and insurance agents have not yet established any specialized training in bereavement as a priority. For many reasons, mostly traditional, financial advisors have had limited knowledge regarding the proper methods in assisting the grieving client.
To begin, we must understand the “The Five Stages of Grief “, (Kubler –Ross 1969). Without a thorough comprehension of these stages the financial advisor cannot fully understand what the client is experiencing. We should be able to identify both psychological and physical signs of grieving. Although the grieving process is necessary, unresolved over a longer period could seriously impair a persons self -worth and effectively render critical decisions. Recognizing these often- paralyzing symptoms may be the salvation to the client and the family.
As financial professionals we can play a key role in the client’s lengthy healing process. How large a role you play, will partly depend upon your knowledge and understanding of the subject of grief and dealing with its implications. Recognizing the five (5) symptoms of the grieving process is an important condition to building a solid relationship with the client.
Five symptoms of the grieving process
The individual is overwhelmed and refuses to believe the loss is happening. This stage serves as a buffer in helping the client mobilize defenses to cope with the situation.
The individual resists the loss and may express his/her anger by acting out toward family, friends and health-care providers.
The individual attempts to postpone the reality of the loss by pleading for an extension of life or the chance to “make everything right"
This stage is characterized by an emotional void or disinterest in outside matters. The individual finally realizes the full impact of the loss and struggles with the idea of separation.
The individual comes to terms with the loss and gains a greater perspective of the situation and integrates the loss with his/her reengagement in life.
While interviewing many grief counselors, funeral directors, clergy, hospice care staff and volunteers, one comment frequently surfaced. Each individual does not follow the grieving process in any particular order. Often, the person confronting the grief will address and readdress a certain stage or stages repeatedly. The grieving process is individualized and has no time limits.
Grieving family members left behind struggle with their loss. In many cases they believe their whole life has collapsed and will feel every emotion imaginable and some unimaginable. Their anguish, sadness, despair, pain and sorrow may take away much of their purpose and determination in life. Given the emotional turmoil involved, this client requires a special kind of care. The following attributes will help convey the financial advisors concern and understanding.
You should be genuinely committed to supporting your client throughout the process. Trust and commitment may have been established with your long-term client; however, this bridge may need to be built or re-established with a new client or the departed clients spouse or family.
As with any professional/client relationship, trust and loyalty take time and patience to establish. Your patience and understanding at this critical time of need will go a long way to affirming your commitment and instilling the necessary confidence in order for the client to know they are making the right decisions.
You must also be capable of dealing with real-life situations while maintaining a high degree of professionalism. Sensitivity, kindness and patience are qualities that will embellish your relationship. Your client has just gone through one of the most traumatic experiences and they are naturally afraid of every aspect of life, particularly in regard to their finances.
Remember, your first priority is to provide your client with a sense of security so they may gain confidence in your decisions. Letting the client know that you have a heartfelt conviction to guide them through this difficult period will help establish a safe and comforting atmosphere at this time when they have little hope.
Share your positive outlook on life, for this stability will offer the bereaved a sense of balance and hope for the future. Your client will feel confidence as you communicate your warmth and determination in approaching their present circumstances.
This is an art that needs to be practiced. Its human nature to want to respond as your client’s concerns are raised, however it is your obligation to let the client speak. This meeting is about the client, not the financial advisor. This is the client’s time to air their feelings. It is about their needs, concerns and objectives. You will have time plenty of time to speak, but it is not now. Continue to raise questions and take notes.
Listening is a skill that cannot be overemphasized. Listen closely and hear what the client is saying. They will convey volumes of information, both financial as well as emotional in a short time. For help in developing your skills in this area there is an excellent book: Listening: the Forgotten Skill: A Self-Teaching Guide by MADELYN BURLEY-ALLEN, the founder and president of Dynamics of Human Behavior. There will always be room for growth in this area and the benefits for your practice will be well worth the effort.
Above all, your client must sense and understand that you care for their emotional and financial welfare. Revealing to your client that you are truly concerned for their well being and have a deep understanding of their present circumstances is worth more than your credentials at this point. Trust and loyalty are built upon honesty. These virtues are paramount to your success and once established, you will have gained their loyalty for life.
How to Get Started
Getting familiar with this topic will enhance your knowledge in human behavior and the understanding necessary before helping those at this critical time in need of your services.
Volunteer at a local hospice and palliative care organization. This can give you real hands-on experience. It will be well worth your time and effort because you will have an opportunity to learn first hand from those who have had many years of experience in this field. Additionally, it is a very satisfying experience to serve people in this real time of need. It is true that experience can be your best teacher.
Financial advisors and other professionals desiring a better understanding of grief and bereavement can and should get the basics from the many educational materials available. You can start with the references listed below.
Bookstores and public libraries generally have an extensive selection on the subject of grief, death and bereavement. Noteworthy are the following textbooks: Death and Dying Life and Living, Charles A. Corr, Clyde M. Nabe, Donna M. Corr, 4th Edition 2003, Wadsworth, Thomson Learning Publishing Co. and The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. Lynn Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland, 6th Edition 2002, McGraw Hill.
Additionally, there are many private and public training and certification programs throughout the country. The American Academy of Bereavement (www.bereavementacademy.com), through CMI Education Institute, Inc. provides a Bereavement Facilitator Level I training program. The American Academy of Grief Counseling (www.aihcp.org) also offers a comprehensive certification program. A Certification in Thanatology, (CT) is provided through The Association for Death Education and Counseling (www.adec.org). Most local colleges or universities offer introductory courses as well as advanced degrees in grief and bereavement.
It is my hope and desire that the financial planning community will begin the task of educating professionals in the field of grief and bereavement. As the national death statistics change, so should our methodology. We are long overdue in creating a precedent in the understanding of this critical area. You don’t need to become an expert or counselor in the field; this should be left to mental healthcare professionals. However, to be an effective advisor, we have to realize that long-term relationships demand we play a crucial role in the healing process as we serve our clients.
Beyond the fundamentals of the financial planning process, it is ultimately the advisors choice to serve clients with compassion and understanding as well as technical competence. These attributes are not mutually exclusive but interdependent requirements of mastering your craft and becoming a trusted family advisor.
The financial planning community should begin instituting a national program identifying a level of expertise in grief and bereavement. Implementing a training program through a series of continuing education courses would be a positive first step. However, a formal course providing the tools necessary to integrate this skill fully into the financial planning process would be optimal.
Identifying those professionals in the financial community with the desire and knowledge to work in this area could be of great benefit to those in need. An acknowledgment of skill mastery could be conferred upon successful completion of the grief and bereavement course regimen. The value of this mark would be to assure that those needing guidance would be receiving advice from a financial advisor certified in this area. New standards would be set forth for all financial advisors, dramatically changing the way we deal with this very natural but often ignored part of the planning process.
A Road Less Traveled
As I am about to leave the cemetery, I have found a new appreciation for the grieving client. I realize that for the benefit of our society, the financial planning industry must take definitive action on its approach and understanding of grieving clients and their family members.
Nearing the exit of the cemetery, my interest is piqued as I am drawn toward an artistically- built structure. This memorial stands above all others, it is the size of a small house. It is built of solid granite, darkened through the decades to a smoke black and gray with exquisitely detailed workmanship. Four generations are buried in this mausoleum, dating from 1809 – 1992. At the entrance, a large granite plaque announces this quote by Thomas Mann, “A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own. " This statement could not be truer.
Kenneth W. Stephan, RFC graduated from Thiel College in 1979 with a B. S. Degree in Economics and Business Administration. He is a Registered Financial Consultant, RFC with “The Equity Advisor Group, Inc. " a comprehensive financial planning firm, in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Ken specializes in financial planning for clients that have recently lost a loved one. He provides Care, patience, trust and professionalism for the bereaved, helping them through a most difficult time. Ken is also a registered representative offering securities and advisory services through Mutual Service Corporation, a registered investment advisor, member of NASD/SIPC, located in West Palm Beach, Florida.