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The Practice Doctor is IN

Comforting the Grieving

by Al Depman, CLU, ChFC, CMFC, BH
Practice Management Consultant

Al Depman photoIn recent conversations with senior advisors, I'm encountering more and more of them that are facing the death of clients. Rather than take the direction of asking, "Did you retain the assets?" or "Did you get to know the spouse or other beneficiary over the past few years" (though these are important considerations in practice management), let's look in on another set of best practices. These are the practical tools of the financial advisor being a comforting presence during a difficult time.

To set the stage, let's review the Kubler-Ross stages of the grieving process:

  1. Denial/Isolation This normal response to grief is our way of buffering the aftershock, and can last for hours or weeks. The phase is characterized by numbness, disbelief, disorientation, and holding-on strategies. This step allows time to help us gain control.
  2. Anger This response is also normal and is characterized by feelings of "Why me?" hostility, rage, loneliness, abandonment, and defenselessness.
  3. Bargaining This stage may involve persistent thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the loss. People can become preoccupied about ways that things could have been better. If this stage is not properly resolved, intense feelings of remorse or guilt may interfere with the healing process. You might also want to point out community resources that may be helpful.
  4. Depression Once the true extent of what has happened sets in, a prolonged stage of self-pity or sadness will be manifest. Carefully watch those in this phase of grieving to determine the degree that it interferes with daily life. Signs that the grieving person is in distress might include weight loss, substance abuse, depression, prolonged sleep disorders, physical problems, talk about suicide, and lack of personal hygiene. Observing these signs may mean the grieving person needs professional help. If you feel this is the case, a suggestion from you (if you feel close enough to the person), or from a trusted friend or family member may be appropriate.
  5. Acceptance People in this phase typically feel tired, peaceful, resigned, and reminiscent, but not necessarily happy. They may avoid crowds, sit in silence, and may gain perspective on their loss.

A crisis stage may occur after a shocking event and can last for 4-5 days afterwards. People in this phase need empathetic understanding—and assurance that all appropriate efforts have been made.

What to Say (and not Say)

  • Never rush those grieving; give them all the time they want.
  • Don't push those grieving to "get it all out" or express their grief.
  • Don't try to find a lesson in the event. Avoid phrases such as "It was God's will" or "It was just his time."
  • Don't say, "You're strong enough to handle this" or "I admire your courage." While your intentions may be good, statements like these may prevent people from asking for help when they need it.
  • Don't say, "I know how you feel." It's impossible to know what someone else is feeling. Say instead, "I can't imagine how you're feeling." They may tell you what they feel, but don't push.
  • Don't say, "Be grateful for the time you had with him", "At least she isn't suffering", or "You still have your memories." Say instead, "It doesn't matter how old our friends get, they're still missed when they're gone."
  • Don't say, "You should be over this" or "You know she wouldn't have wanted you to feel this way." Statements like these cause people to feel guilty for grieving. Full recovery from the loss of a spouse may take years—some may never stop grieving.
  • Don't say, "If you need anything, let me know." Grieving individuals are often too overwhelmed to think of things for you to do. Instead say, "I want to help share your burden. Would it be helpful if I were to...?"
  • Don't change the subject away from discussing the loved one.
  • Don't let your discomfort keep you from helping, calling, or visiting! Your avoidance will increase the confusion of those grieving.
  • Do say, "I admired him because..."
  • Do say, "I don't know what to say; just know I care."
  • Do say, "My thoughts and prayers are with you."

Finally, if you are attending a memorial, keep your words short and remember that the person receiving them is in a very fragile state at that time. There are probably many people who want to offer their condolences. He or she has probably been on their feet for an entire day and has not been able to eat or sleep well. If you're not good with words at times like this, don't use them. A simple hug goes a long way in conveying your sorrow and provides some comfort at a difficult time.

Review this material with your team: they may get the initial or subsequent communications and need to be prepared. Dig out materials from your life insurance company on processing death benefit protocols to plan that outreach and its timing. Have available helpful items like an executor's checklist to offer those who may have never experienced that role.

We spend a great deal of time preparing clients for retirement. Being a good steward when that phase ends is part of your value proposition and role as a financial life advisor.

The Doctor is OUT

© 2015 Al Depman

Al Depman, CLU, ChFC, CMFC, BH, a.k.a. "The Practice Doctor", is's Business Practice Consultant, and contributor to "The Wall Street Journal." He is the creator of "The Practice Management Assessment" tool, the key component of The Business Practice Check-Up™, has authored numerous articles in professional publications on practice management, and is the author of the book, How to Build Your Financial Advisory Business and Sell It at a Profit, available from McGraw Hill. Al combined his Liberal Arts studies with 10 years of management experience with McDonald's Corporation to enter the financial services world 25 years ago. Since then, Al has evolved from an MDRT-level sales rep into a full-time consultant specializing in helping others engineer their business practices to the next level. Contact him at

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