DALLAS - Becoming a widow or getting divorced are extreme changes in a woman’s life and they come with extreme emotions. For advisors working with these clients it is critical to understand the role grief plays in the process of making decisions, Joy Kirsch told advisors at the Women Advisors Forum Thursday.

Kirsch would know. She became widowed at age 30 while working as an advisor. Today she specializes in working with clients dealing with difficult life transitions and works with a non-profit dedicated to educating and supporting widows.

While women in transition aren’t the only people who make decisions they might regret, the effects of chronic stress mean they are more vulnerable to making inappropriate decisions or simply incapable of making decisions at all, Kirsch says. The stress caused by an event like this can cause erratic behavior. Some characteristics of transition stress include narrow focus and a short attention span, but also extremes like feeling invincible, hyper reactivity and victim behavior.

The science behind it has to do with three parts of the brain – the ‘Reptilian’ brain which governs survival functions, the ‘Mammalian’ brain which is responsible for instincts and emotions and the ‘Hominoid’ brain which allows for reasoning and language. “If you can’t access [the part of your brain responsible for] reasoning, you can’t make decisions that require reason,” Kirsch says. “Language resides in that part of the brain as well, so we can’t even communicate what we need.”

Kirsch has seen plenty of this in her Bedford, Texas-based planning practice. One client simply couldn’t get her tax return done. After talking with her, Kirsch found that it was because the only thing she could think or talk about was that her husband had been cremated and she didn’t know what to do with his ashes. “So we snuck onto the golf course at night and spread the ashes,” Kirsch says. “She went in and did her taxes the next day.”

One challenge in working with women in transition is capturing their attention. “So many things are whirling around in her brain that it is overwhelming,” Kirsch says. “Our job is to help her prioritize.” Kirsch offered advisors a few tools to use:

  • Engage the Senses: Present information verbally and via writing, but be sure to be consistent across mediums. “The more of her senses you can get involved, the betttier off she will be,” Kirsh says.
  • Be Consistent: Be sure to say the same thing that the client is reading. Consider adding color to presentations, but use the same color for every presentation. This helps develop recognition of certain concepts, but also trust in the advisor, Kirsch says.
  • Bring Someone In: Have your client bring in another set of ears to help listen and retain information during a transition, Kirsch says.  “Make sure it is an appropriate person, someone who as good intentions—to be a set of ears only—someone who is there to listen and absorb and help her remember versus giving her advice.”

An attendee and fellow advisor, Ellen Derrick was particularly touched by Kirsch’s presentation because of her own experience. Derrick who is now an advisor with Learnvest, was 24 years old when her mother passed away suddenly. The experience of working with an advisor who did not understand her or help her take over her mother’s finances in the way she wanted prompted Derrick to become an advisor herself, she says. “That’s why Joy Kirsch’s speech struck me so much,” she says. “I wish I had known someone like her when I was 24.”
Today Derrick works with young clients dealing with transitions of their own. “It doesn’t have to be as major as losing a family member, but a lot of people go through stress in life transitions,” Derrick adds. “ I think the same principles apply.”