When tragedy strikes

By Beasley Hawkes | September 19, 2006 | Last updated on September 19, 2006
3 min read

(September 2006) As advisors, we get faced with difficult choices. Among them are clients weathering financial storms.

Do we invest the extra time and trouble in their situations? Or do we cut back in service after they’ve withdrawn a significant portion of their investments? Do we “cull” them if they are no longer profitable? Hopefully, it’s not a tough call.

What if the client has experienced a personal tragedy, like losing a loved one, partner, or worst of all, a child? What do you say to that person? One of my impulses is to stay away, and avoid experiencing the sorrow. Though I usually overcome that reluctance, calling is not my natural tendency. Even though I initially want to make contact, something tries to stop me; something makes me want to run away. Hopefully, I’m the only one who has trouble with these situations.

We could really be providing serious and necessary support, even if it might cost us time and make us feel awkward. And sure, it may seem easy to rationalize the avoidance behaviou r— you don’t want family members to think you’re after the death benefit. Besides, they need to be supported by their loved ones, not bothered by us.

We have a bigger role and responsibility with clients. When a family loses a breadwinner, we need to step in and let them know everything will be OK. Then we have to follow through to make sure that it is.

What I know from personal experience of losing family members is that the more people who give their condolences, the bettter. So I never let “not knowing what to say” stop me anymore. Case in point: Earlier this summer, Jack, an acquaintance of mine, called to tell me the wife of our mutual close friend Bill had died. I thought it was a lousy joke. She was barely 50, in great health, and they were on their honeymoon. It was a freak accident. I knew I had to call Bill but at that moment it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. What do I say? How do I act? I thought, “He can’t want to talk about it. I should just leave him alone.”

Making that phone call to Bill was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. My wife helped remind me it was actually what I really wanted to do, and even if it wasn’t, it was what I needed to do.

I called, and the facts were worse than I could have imagined. My mind screamed at me to make an excuse and hang up, but I hung in there.

No, it’s not easy. Jack, who has been close friends with Bill much longer than I, could not bring himself to call, and went ahead with a planned trip instead of attending the funeral. He just couldn’t deal with the tragedy. I don’t say this to condemn Jack, but rather to say I understand.

After attending funerals this summer for eight people who died way before their time, I can now make the following observations. It is as painful as you imagine, sometimes worse. But your presence makes things better for the bereaved. You don’t have to know what to say, but start with, “I’m sorry” and the rest will flow. You have no responsibility other than to be there and share the pain. From being on the other side, I know that it just helps family members to have people around, and to know they cared enough to show up.

So the next time any of these dilemmas hit you, put yourself quickly in the shoes of the bereaved or the victim. How would you want someone to respond? That will tell you the right thing to do

Beasely Hawkes is pseudonym. He is a practising financial advisor with a firm he’d rather not name. Hawkes can be reached at advisorsedge@rmpublishing.com.


Beasley Hawkes