Some months back, I came across an article in The New York Times by Bruce Feiler titled “The Art of Condolence.” I have written about this topic here before, but he had me re-thinking it, remembering how important it is for advisors to get this right as we reach out to clients going through loss.
The article identifies seven bullets to keep in mind when we express condolence. Of the seven, three bubbled to the top. I add a fourth. First, words are important, but cannot carry the most important aspect to expressing sympathy. In fact, as Feiler observes, “being tongue-tied is O.K.” as we attempt to convey support and love for another. When using words, however, express genuine sympathy without infusing too much of your grief experiences. Our focus is always on others: their loss, their sorrow, their sense of helplessness.
That said, be careful to avoid words that attempt some philosophical or theological explanation. This is not a time to say, “God needed another angel,” “she’s in a better place,” or horror, “It was part of some grand divine plan.” A person, when grieving, needs from us a simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I cannot imagine the sorrow you must feel.” Someone has died, or a marriage has ended, or a career crashed. Acknowledge that as simply and sensitively as possible.
Related to our use of words is Feiler’s caution about using social media like Facebook or even an e-mail to express sympathy. Those first words, if possible, need to be spoken either on a call or a brief face-to-face visit.
Third, though the Time’s columnist does not address the power of presence, being with the person who has experienced loss is vital provided such a visit is physically possible. Times are, you will be out of town when a client or client’s family member dies. When that happens, call the surviving spouse or family member and convey your sympathy and regret in being unable to attend the funeral. When you return home, make a personal visit to the grieving client as soon as possible.
Loss of any kind has this feeling of loneliness and isolation no one can define with anything close to precision. Look back on the last time you experienced acute grief. Wasn’t it comforting to see a close friend or family member walk in the door, give you a hug, and be a loving presence that helped you manage that horrific moment a bit better? When it comes to our clients, if possible, find a way as soon as you can to be with the person you serve who has gone through loss.
Finally, remember that grief lingers. A week or two after the funeral—or even a month or two—take a notecard and drop your client a simple, “I’m thinking of you” message and put it in the mail. Grief sets up near-permanent residence long after the flowers fade and mourners leave. Be bold but sensitive in mentioning the name of the person who has died. So many have told me through the years that well-meaning people never mention the husband, wife, or child who died. Advisors who are aware of grief’s recognizable and even insidious faces connect with clients in ways that convey authentic concern and lasting support.