On Widows and Decision Free Zones

When I read “Clients Who Lose a Spouse Require Both Empathy and Skill” by Juliette Fairley in Financial Advisor’s online magazine, I was encouraged by the several mentions of the non-financial needs of widows. I immediately contacted Robin Young, CFP®, RLP®, who is a Mastery-level Certified Financial Transitionist® and has been working with widows for decades. She is also an active member of our community’s group that studies widowhood. Here are our top three tips for working with widows.

1. Create a Decision Free Zone®

Fairley’s article is spot-on when it comes to decisions. Robin and I especially appreciated the allusion to a “temporary, financial-free zone,” but with a caveat. In Financial Transitions Planning, we use a tool I introduced in Sudden Money: Managing a Financial Windfall (Wiley 2000) called the Decision Free Zone® (DFZ). I’d love to say that you will be able to just give your client all the uninterrupted time they want to grieve and to process the death of their spouse or partner. But that’s simply not always possible. Sometimes there are decisions to be made. And sometimes they involve money. A Decision Free Zone is about making only the decisions that must be made. And you need to have a process for identifying those decisions. It’s crucial to recognize that although a new widow might have the perception that she has a long list of things she must do and decisions she must make, many times reality does not map onto that perception. Part of your job is to explain that in a way the individual can hear it. You can’t just say, “Don’t worry about all of those things–you don’t need to do anything with them right now, and you certainly don’t need to be thinking about them.” If you want to begin to relieve a client of the burden of the confusion or noise in their head, you must have a process for listening to their concerns and then sorting, organizing, and prioritizing those concerns with them. In order to begin to calm and clarify an otherwise overwhelming and confusing experience, you must be able to give space and time to everything that concerns your client. You must respect the experience they are having as well as help them navigate it. And you can’t determine which of their concerns are most pressing until you’ve actually identified the concerns.

2. Practice Listening and Patience

We can’t emphasize enough how important it is to listen to all of your client’s concerns. In order to create a DFZ that begins to ease your client’s overwhelm, you must provide them with the opportunity to say what they need to say. This moment isn’t about you and your plans for them; it’s about them feeling safe and heard. Your technical training is invaluable when it comes to making decisions about money, but it’s the personal-side work that you will rely heavily on while crafting a DFZ. The personal-side, after all, is what dictates the why of decision-making. Robin says:
Widows need to be making decisions based on their new situation and on whatever shift they experience in their goals and values. It’s emotionally difficult to make this shift and it takes time. For example, one of the biggest hurdles is psychologically taking ownership of the money that is now entirely hers. The voices from her life with her spouse or partner can prevent the widow from moving forward and identifying and following her [new] path. We recommend not making big (not essential) decisions in the first year, while all of that inner shifting is so dramatic.
The idea of making only essential decisions for a year is not well-received by many financial advisors. But, as Robin said:
They need time and space to heal, consider their options, and take stock of what they need and want. And then they might be ready to move forward. And that movement will be slow. That time–that necessary time that the client needs–is uncomfortable for many advisors. We weren’t trained to be patient and to let the client’s timeline drive the work. Patience is something you have to learn and constantly practice. The same is true with listening. We all think we’re good listeners and that we’re patient when we need to be, but once you start really paying attention to how you show up as a human being for your clients, you might be surprised by what you see and feel.

3. Be Present for Your Client’s Emotional Experience

Many financial advisors aren’t comfortable when their clients become emotional. And most widows become emotional at some point. Why wouldn’t they? And why don’t financial advisors get adequate training on what to do? In their defense, it’s not just financial advisors who don’t know what to do. Our culture has made some strides but every widow has nevertheless heard her share of “Everything happens for a reason,” “I know how you feel,” “Time heals all wounds” and “It’s time to move forward.” If you learn one thing from this post, learn that your job is not to help a widow feel better. Check out Megan Devine’s Refuge in Grief — it’s a great resource for perspective. One of my favorite podcast quotes is: It’s not about them feeling better–it’s about them carrying what they have to carry. Devine talks about “companioning” someone’s grief and just being present for them and for the truth of their reality. There is no greater act of support.  

If you’re interested in an introduction on how to be present for your clients during life-altering transitions such as widowhood, click here.

And if you’re ready to change the way you think about and practice financial planning, check out our yearlong program in Financial Transitions Planning.