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The Right Words

Keep these guidelines handy when dealing with the grieving spouse of a client who has died.

By Amy Florian

Recently, a worried advisor called me. One of his top clients had died. “I will attend the services, but I’m afraid I’ll say and do all the wrong things,” he said. “Help!”

Research tells us that 98 percent of children and 70 percent of widows switch to a different financial professional after the estate is settled. This means that you need to use every bit of knowledge to ensure that you keep those assets under your management.

What to avoid
The challenge is that very few advisors are taught what to say or do, either at the formal services or in subsequent office appointments. Most advisors pick up the “standard” phrases that everyone uses, without realizing that most of them are unhelpful. You also become indistinguishable from all the other faces in the crowd. So what can you do to set yourself apart as someone who understands grief and addresses the family in authentic and helpful ways? Here are some rules:

Keep the focus on the grieving person. When you tell the grieving person, “I’m so sorry,” she may respond by saying, “Yes, I am, too,” or “Thank you.” However, this doesn’t help console her. In fact, when you say that you feel bad, she may feel the need to comfort you.

You may also run the risk of getting a more serious negative reaction. Recently, a widow told me that if one more person said he was sorry, she was going to respond with, “Not half as sorry as I am!”

Research tells us that 98 percent of children and 70 percent of widows switch to a different financial professional after the estate is settled.

Every grief is unique. A person’s grief is affected by the relationship with the deceased person, personality characteristics, available support systems, prior experience with loss and other factors. Because of this, two widows whose husbands die at the same age of the same cause on the same day in the same town will experience grief differently. If you say, “I know just how you feel,” that may alienate the grieving person immediately because you really don’t know how she feels.

Don’t minimize or compare the loss. Avoid saying anything that compares the person’s loss to someone else’s greater loss. Some examples are: “At least you still have your children,” or “I read in the paper that a woman’s husband and mother both died in the same accident. At least you only have to deal with one significant death at a time.” When you point out what the person hasn’t lost, it shows that you don’t understand.

Allow for sad and happy emotions simultaneously. Many people say “Be thankful he’s in a better place,” or “You should be grateful you had him with you for so many years; not everyone is that lucky.” The grieving person may be deeply thankful that the spouse is in a better place (if it fits with her spiritual beliefs) and may be profoundly grateful for the privilege of enjoying a long marriage. But in the midst of her gratitude, she is also sad. You need to allow and validate both sides.

There are no time limits. Do not tell a grieving person that she will feel better in three or six months. While the person will feel gradually more stable as she continues working through her grief, there is no timetable. You cannot accurately predict the depth or length of anyone’s grief.

What to say
You may find the following phrases more helpful:

  • “This is such a shock. I can’t imagine what you are going through.”

  • “I know from our long-standing relationship that he loved you very much.”

  • “Grieving for him will take a very long time. I want you to know that I will be here for you. I’ll do whatever I can to help you through.”

  • “It’s a relief to know he isn’t in pain anymore, but this world just won’t be the same without him.”

  • “You’ve probably had people tell you to call anytime you need something. Instead, I’ll call you in about 10 days after other people have gone back home and you have more time.”

That dreaded phone call announcing a client’s death is bound to come. Keep these principles and suggestions handy so that you can rise above the crowd as an advisor of wisdom and compassion.

Amy Florian is CEO of Corgenius (, a company that specializes in training financial professionals on how to interact with grieving clients.


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