The unthinkable recently happened in my family.
My dad died.
We’re still living this nightmare that started when he got sick. Oftentimes, kind‐hearted well‐wishers unknowingly make it worse with the things they say, but my parents’ financial adviser is not one of those people.
I remember Mr. Vincent Rogers since I was a little girl. I was frightened of him for a long time simply because when my parents took out life insurance policies on us when I was 9, I was terrified to have blood drawn and I blamed Rogers for my fear.
Rogers was not just a financial adviser, he was also a friend to my dad, as he relayed to me when he paid his respects at my dad’s funeral.
“Do you remember me?” he asked.
“Of course,” I responded before thanking him for joining our family to celebrate our dad’s life.
“Your dad was my great friend,” he told me.
He relayed a story about how when he was a young newlywed, my dad made his wife (who was from Colombia and at the time spoke limited English) feel comfortable because he spoke in Spanish to her. Oftentimes, Rogers said, my dad and he had philosophical conversations about life and marriage. He told me that he will miss my dad—and I could tell he meant it.
There is one guarantee in this life and that is death. Given that fact, there is a very high chance that your clients are going to experience the loss of a loved one in the course of your working with them.
A time of loss is also a time of heightened sensitivity. Understandably, it’s stressful to approach a grieving person for fear of saying the wrong thing. Death in a family can cause your clients to cut out their own family members, and if you say something offensive to them, they just might cut you out too.
Clients might hold you to a higher standard when it comes to communication skills, and especially during a time of loss. Avoid being offensive by steering clear of the following phrases:
“I can’t even imagine.” Andrea Raynor, hospice chaplain, writes in her book The Alphabet of Grief: Words to Help in Times of Sorrow, that this is one of the more hurtful things to say to clients who are grieving. She said that this is like telling your client that their situation is so horrifying that you can’t even picture yourself going through it.
“I know how you feel.” None of us know how each other feels, really, and especially not during a time of loss. We’ve all lost someone, so if you are trying to say you know how they feel because you too have lost someone, then tell them the specific story while also clarifying that you understand that we all grieve and feel differently.
A friend, who’d also lost her father not too long ago, reached out and instead of saying, “I know how you feel,” she shared a specific story of how she has coped with losing her dad.
“It gets better when you realize he’s always with you,” she told me. This has been incredibly comforting, and I think of it every day.
“I’m so sorry.” Amy Florian told the Wall Street Journal that your clients will likely hear this phrase thousands of times and it will likely not have any impact by the time you say it. She’s right. This phrase could open the door to a negative situation, also, Florian noted, like the client responding with “Not half as sorry as I am.” Instead, she adds, share a memory of their loved one if you knew them, the way Rogers did with me.
“Everything happens for a reason.” This is another one best avoided, David Kessler, author and lecturer on death and dying, told the Wall Street Journal.
“When you’re in deep grief, you don’t care about any reasons,” he said in the article titled, “What Not to Say to a Grieving Client.”
He advises to simply let your client talk. Allow for extra time for your meeting with them with the expectation that they’ll need more time to tell their story.
These are the four phrases that have been triggers for me, and upon further research I found them on several lists of what not to say to clients who are grieving. Simply avoid these phrases altogether, opting for an authentic, heartfelt story of your clients’ loved one. You’re not going to make them feel better, but you could avoid making them feel worse.
One last bit of advice: check in on your clients. They’re probably not OK one month, two months, even a year after their loved one’s death. You reaching out just to see how they are will mean the world to them.
Ana Trujillo Limón is associate editor of the Journal of Financial Planning and the editor of the FPA Practice Management Blog. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnaT_Edits.