In my practice in administering trusts and estates, I have the honor to work with widows and widowers grieving the death of a spouse as well as children and grandchildren grieving the loss of a parent or grandparent. Through my own experience of losing my son Micah in 2009, I know firsthand about grief and loss. I try to utilize what I have learned in my own grief experience to help these grieving families. I thought I would pass along a few points I have learned and observed in my own life and practice.
- Acknowledge the Loss. Even if you don’t have a close relationship with your client, don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Acknowledge the death of the loved one and the grief of the client. If you don’t know what to say, then simply say that— “I’m so sorry for your loss, I don’t know what to say.” Your clients are constantly aware of their own loss, so don’t think that you are bringing up a painful subject that would otherwise be forgotten. Their grief is central in their minds. Honor the decedent’s memory by acknowledging the great loss.
- Enter Into the Grief. Ask open-ended questions to ascertain the client’s state of mind. Just because you and your team need to accomplish certain tasks does not mean that those tasks are what is most pressing to your client. If I did not know the decedent during his or her lifetime, I might start a meeting by asking about the decedent, including her accomplishments, her personality, and her interests. Families want to honor the memory of their loved one, and we can help them in that grief process by entering into the grief.
- Set Reasonable Expectations. Grief elevates “feelings” above “facts” to the point where grieving people have a limited capacity to retain facts. Especially for those in the early stages of grief, the mind can only retain and process a limited amount of factual information. Ahead of a meeting with a grieving family member, prioritize those issues that need to be addressed, and consider trimming your agenda to include only one-half of the items that would otherwise be included.
- Create a Customized Checklist. Since no two estate or trust matters are the same, I generally resist the idea of providing a grieving family with a form “checklist” of tasks. Any exhaustive checklist will inevitably include items that are not relevant to a particular situation. I prefer meeting with the clients to understand the nature of their assets and estate planning structure, and then prepare a “to do” list that includes the tasks to be completed, the responsible party, and any deadline for completion. By reason of their grief, client will not be able to remember their tasks; it is therefore up to the team of advisors to mark progress on each task.
- Encourage Family Assistance. I generally encourage my grieving clients to rely upon the assistance of friends or family members. Adult children or the sons-in-law or daughters-in-law of a deceased parent could be involved to assist with administrative tasks, thereby reducing the stress level for the client.
Through our Hope for the Mourning nonprofit organization, my wife and I have opportunity to work with many families in grief, and I would be honored to speak with you or your clients about the management of grief. Of course, please do not hesitate to contact me or anyone at our firm with regard to any estate or trust administration matters.