What to say to grieving clients

By Samiha Khanna

Some of the skills most valuable for every accountant aren’t financial skills at all. They’re people skills, such as helping clients navigate life and the big milestones and losses that will inevitably come their way, said Amy Florian, a grief expert and CEO of consulting company Corgenius.

Whether it’s a death, a divorce, or a career dream that didn’t come true for your client, grief comes in many forms, Florian said Monday during her AICPA ENGAGE 2019 presentation in Las Vegas, “Advising Clients Through Life’s Toughest Times.”

Florian, who has worked with more than 2,000 grieving people in her career as a thanatologist, or expert in death and grief, offered several tangible tips on how CPAs can offer genuine support for clients enduring a loss, fortify that relationship with trust, and continue to earn their business.

Be cognizant of the many types of grief. Death may be the most obvious cause of grief, but it’s only one of dozens of events that can leave a client at a loss, and looking for support and guidance.

“Any time you leave something behind, whether it’s leaving behind a dream or your plans for the future or a role, it triggers grief,” Florian said in an interview before her presentation.

In these difficult times, clients need a trusted adviser who, beyond knowing about finances, knows how to provide thoughtful and useful support, she said.

Don’t just say, “I’m so sorry.” When clients face a major life shift, such as a death, job loss, or serious medical diagnosis, one of the phrases they will hear over and over is, “I’m so sorry,” or, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said.

“People don’t know what to say, what to do, or how to help,” Florian said. “It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Anything you can say or do that’s different from what everyone else is doing — that is wiser, more compassionate — is going to make a difference with your clients.”

After a death, for example, rather than saying you’re sorry, offer a nice memory or anecdote about the person who has died, she suggested. Ask questions that allow clients to tell their story, and then listen. Let them talk about how they feel.

“By sharing that memory, you’ve probably made the grieving person smile,” she said. You’re offering the opportunity to share stories and memories and even learn things about their loved one they didn’t know before.

If clients cry, let them cry. Rather than trying to cheer them up or pointing out things they should be happy or relieved about, let them know it’s OK, Florian said.

Understand how grief affects the brain. When people are grieving, they go into survival mode, Florian said.

“They don’t think the same way, and this is normal,” she said. “Their brain gets flooded with cortisol, a stress hormone. The upper-level thinking, rational thinking, analytical thinking gets pushed to the side, at least temporarily.”

This is a crucial time for an adviser to step up, she said. ”They need the adviser to be there in those emotional and irrational times, and in order to support them to heal so the grief dissipates and their rationality comes back.”

Keep calling just to check in. Some advisers might want to give their clients space while they are grieving, but they should do the opposite, Florian said. “If you say, ‘Call me when you’re ready,’ you may never hear from them again,” she said.

Instead, keep reaching out. “See how they are doing without bringing up business,” she said. “Give them a call and say, ‘What kind of day is it today? Has everybody gone home? Who is with you?’”

These suggestions on how to support someone who is grieving are great not just for CPAs, but for everyone, Florian said.

“This stuff is important for everybody,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do for your client. It’s the human thing to do. It’s what we all ought to be doing; we just haven’t been taught.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA’s editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.

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