Last month I explained that grief is not a straightforward process and why the widely referenced “five stages of grief,” while valid responses to receiving bad news, are insufficient to describe the ongoing grief experience. Current models focus more on behaviors that people exhibit when they go through grief or tasks they need to accomplish in order to heal. (One very popular model, for instance, is William Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning). These models are much more accurate descriptors of the grief process than Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of dying patients.
Now, with a better understanding of the grief process, let’s explore a few tips and skills for how to communicate with and support clients who are grieving.
The first principle is very easy: Be present. People are very concerned about saying the wrong thing. In fact, they are so concerned about saying the wrong thing that most of the time, they don’t say anything at all. They avoid the services, and other than a cursory “How are you?” they never mention the death or the person who died. But that makes the grieving person feel more isolated and alone, uncared for and unsupported. So take a risk and be there. Even if you say the “wrong” thing, it’s better than nothing at all.
The second principle is to really think about what you’re saying and what it means to a grieving client. In a previous article, I detailed the reasons not to say “Call me any time.” It simply isn’t helpful, because your client is not going to call you. Perhaps that is the typical way you end your appointments (i.e. “We’ve covered a lot to today, so if you have any questions, just call me anytime”); don’t say that to grieving clients. Instead, come up with a short, concrete to-do list. Ensure clients physically write it down to take with them, and you keep a copy. Then say, “I’ll call you next Tuesday just to check in, to see if you have any questions and whether you’ve been able to get started on your list or not. I know it’s hard to keep track of everything, so I’ll be checking in with you regularly.”
Then, every time you talk to that client, set up the next time you’ll call. “Okay, I’ll call again in two weeks.” Of course, the length of time between calls depends on what you’re trying to get accomplished and the complexity of the case, but you always set up another time when you’re going to call. It’s such a relief for grieving clients to know that you care enough to check in and they don’t have to be the ones with the burden of having to call you.
Similarly, another thing you should never say to a grieving person is, “I know how you feel.” When you say that, you’re always wrong, even if you’ve had a similar death in your personal life. Although there are similarities in every grief process, each situation of grief is experienced uniquely. For instance, if you have two female clients and their husbands both die at the same age, of the same thing, in the same town, on the same day, they’re going to have a very different experience of grief because their individual relationship with their husband is different, as is their personality, their support network, their culture, their prior experiences of loss, their faith, etc. These are all factors that affect an individual’s experience of grief, and which help determine how long, deep and complex that experience will be. So, even if your spouse died, you cannot greet a widowed client with “I know how you feel” because you don’t.
Instead, you can acknowledge that you have a similar experience or you know something about what this type of loss may be like, but then ask open-ended questions that honor their uniqueness. For example, “But what is it like for you?” or “How is it different in your case?” For a practical illustration, if you were widowed a few years ago and now your client is widowed, you can say: “When my spouse died, I felt that none of my married friends knew what to do with me anymore. Is it like that for you, or how is it different? What’s happening in your friendship circle?”
A final tip for today: Remember that grief takes a long time, and is more like a roller coaster than a linear, predictable process. Therefore, continue to call, send cards and perhaps a small gift on important days like some of the monthly anniversaries of the death (and certainly the yearly anniversary), the birthday, the wedding anniversary and any other days that are sure to be intensely painful to grieving clients. So many other people avoid them on those days, and they truly appreciate anyone who reaches out with understanding and comfort.
It can be as simple as sending a card. “You may find that on Jim’s birthday, most people will talk about anyone and anything except Jim. We hope that with the enclosed gift card, you can grab a friend, go have coffees and tell stories about Jim all morning. Jim is worth remembering. We’re remembering with you.” Or “Can it be that it’s a year since Jim died? On this anniversary, we raise a glass with you in his memory, and we are making a donation to XY Nonprofit so his legacy lives on. We will never forget Jim.”
There are so many more tips and skills to learn. Yet hopefully these will get you started. Raise the bar on your communications with grieving clients. It truly sets you apart in a field where so few others know what to do and say to effectively offer comfort and support. It is good for your clients, and you’ll find it brings satisfaction and joy to you as well.
Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professions in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life.