In last week’s column about grief, I suggested that all of our personal losses, such as the death of a loved one, have financial aspects. These may range from a severe reduction in family income because of a divorce or the death of a wage earner, to the complexities around an inheritance or other financial gain, to the need for someone who has never dealt with family finances to take over managing the money.
Whatever the circumstances may be, a common denominator is that survivors are faced with making money decisions and dealing with finances while they are grieving. Over the years, I’ve supported many clients through times of loss and transition such as divorces, deaths of parents or spouses, business failures, and natural disasters. Following are some of the things I’ve learned:
1. Paying attention to money matters, even in the first days following a loved one’s death, is not unfeeling, disrespectful, or a sign that someone is not grieving. It is a necessary part of the financial consequences that come with such a loss.
2. Everyone grieves differently, and at times it may be hard to witness someone’s mourning. Even in a business or financial context, tears and other expressions of emotion are not necessarily “excessive” or “inappropriate.” It may be helpful for an advisor or other professional to suggest taking a break; it almost never is helpful to minimize or avoid someone’s feelings because of the listener’s own discomfort.
3. It is possible and even desirable to temporarily set aside deep emotions, focus on financial or legal matters that need your attention, and then move back into your emotions. I remember doing this “bookmarking” years ago to deal with my sadness and anger when my former wife and I were working with a mediator to settle the financial terms of our divorce. During the mediation sessions, I was able to focus on the negotiations. During breaks, I would go home and beat on a pillow with a foam bat, discharging my anger in a physical way without hurting anything or anyone, including myself. Then I could go back to the next session and discuss terms with reasonable objectivity and calm.
4. There is nothing wrong with asking for help. A trusted friend might help with essentials like notifying insurance companies, organizing financial information and prioritizing tasks, and supporting you while you cope with pressing financial decisions that cannot be put off. I have at times accompanied clients to appointments with estate attorneys, just to serve as a “backup brain” in case they have trouble focusing.
5. Grief is not a problem to be solved but a process to be lived through, whatever form it may take. It is a major transition, and any transition includes three stages: an ending, a period of passage while we relate and adapt to the change, and a new beginning. In the ending and passage stages of a transition it’s important to reach out for help and guidance. Many financial therapists and financial planners are Certified Financial Transitionists (CeFT), with specific training and tools to help people move through the financial aspects of grieving.
6. Listening is sometimes the most valuable form of support. Whether you are meeting with an attorney or accountant as the executor of a loved one’s estate, working with a financial advisor, or spending time with family and friends, being heard matters. It is appropriate and reasonable to expect to be listened to with respect and not dismissed with platitudes. Telling the story of your loss is part of the process of grieving. The financial consequences and impact of a loss are part of that story.