Here's a piece of counterintuitive advice for widowers and divorcees: You can put financial decisions on hold, at least for a little while.
That's according to Amy Florian, a thanatologist and chief executive of Corgenius, a Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based consultancy that specializes in educating advisors on understanding the grieving process. (Thanatology is the scientific study of death.)
Florian spoke at the Schwab IMPACT conference in San Diego on Oct. 25. Her focus: guiding women investors through life's transitions, including divorce and death.
Financial advisors are well versed in helping their clients understand their finances — sometimes to a fault. To an extent, the hard numbers can wait.
"Advisors don't know how to communicate during times of grief," Florian said in an interview. She attributes this to two factors: First, financial professionals tend to concentrate on clients' portfolios and hard numbers. Second, people are generally terrible at addressing others who are hurting.
Grief is triggered by a break in attachment, said Florian.
"There is a grief process for divorce: What do you call yourself? Where do you fit in? Do you feel safe?" she said. The loss of a spouse, be it through divorce or death, upsets the survivor's identity and social circle.
Amid those times, a widower or divorcee isn't in the best shape to make pressing decisions about their finances.
"Your brain gets flooded with cortisol," Florian said. "You'll think you're making rational decisions, but you're not."
Rather than responding to news of a death or a divorce with the obligatory and awkward "I'm sorry," advisors should give the survivor or the divorcee an opportunity to express their feelings.
"What would I say to 'I'm sorry?'" asked Florian. "'Thank you' or 'It's not your fault.'"
Instead, advisors should also use open-ended questions to learn more about the relationship and give the grieving client a chance to vent: What happened? What kind of day is this for you?
In the event of a death: What are ways to honor this person's memory? If it's a divorce, be sure to recognize the loss of the dream: "This isn't what you had in mind when you walked down the aisle. Would you like to talk about it?"
"Become aware of what triggers grief, and follow the client's lead," said Florian.
Don't feel pressured to "get over" your loss.
Put off any decisions that don't need to be made right away, and give yourself — and other loved ones affected by the loss — time to grieve. "Have patience for yourself and for others around you," said Florian. "They won't be at the same place at the same time."
Rely on friends, family members or professionals who can help you work through the process.
"You will never forget [the person you've lost], and the point is to never forget," said Florian. "Honor them."