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When a client announced her terminal cancer diagnosis

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After 12 years as a financial planner, I thought there wasn’t much I hadn’t been exposed to. But recently, I faced death for the first time.

What was slated to be a standard investment review with a client, ended up as anything but when she announced that her situation had changed. Even though she is in her early-60s, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer with only 24 months to live. With medication she had been prescribed, she would be healthy for most of that time. It wouldn’t cure her, but she would live a normal life. After that period, no-one knew what was going to happen. But everyone knew she was going to die within a few years, at most.

No amount of mindless distractions, stress-eating or bourbon could chase away the shock and sadness I felt for this woman and her family.

That news rocked me. While I was able to run her through some financial planning that needed to take place in the near future, I was in shock. She went through the rest of the meeting a mixture of smiles, tears and furious note-taking. Her conversation flitted between talking about her final desires, how she wanted to be remembered by her children and worry that her husband would be left without health insurance when she passed.

At the end of an hour we discussed next steps but we were both drained. I finished up my remaining client meetings of the day in a daze. Twenty-four hours later, I still hadn’t opened my computer to continue working and no amount of mindless distractions, stress-eating or bourbon over the following days could chase away the shock and sadness I felt for this woman and her family.

Starting my career in the middle of the great recession, I saw clients enter and leave meetings in tears — with advisors doing the same. I saw how stable financial situations, now rocked, created emotional situations that were hard to handle.

If left alone, these situations almost always righted themselves and became normal again. But normal wasn’t ever happening again for this client.

So as advisors, how do we move forward to do the best for our clients?

1. Leaning on colleagues for knowledge and support
I have been in a mastermind study group for the last five years. I know that I can discuss anything with them together, or call any member individually and delve deeply into a topic. They knew I needed some time to just talk through the situation and process how I was feeling. I also had to ask them, and other networks of advisors, for professional guidance. This was the first client who was going to die on my watch, so while I knew the top-level things to do, I also needed guidance from those who had been in this situation before. I got a lot of ideas from experienced advisors, from standard procedures and having family meetings to discussing final days and ethical wills to researching death doulas and what support the family might need. I wouldn't have been prepared for this situation without the skills of other advisors who were willing to share their experiences to aid others.

2. Hugging family members a little tighter
In the two days after the meeting with my client, I found myself hugging my wife and kids harder and longer. The experience of seeing someone face their mortality and having limited time left made me appreciate my once seemingly limitless time on Earth much more. Much as George Kinder’s “3 Questions” pushes readers to examine what’s important to them in life, being with someone as they face this situation forces you to establish your own priorities.

While it felt awkward to ask a dying woman for money, I knew that if I was going to be of service to her I needed to dedicate additional time and resources.

3. Being a support, and not a burden, for your client
In this meeting, I found myself drawing up a list of people my client needed to see, questions she needed answered and documents she needed to get executed. Even as my professional cylinders were firing, I knew that not handling this sensitively could make her situation even worse. Because the service model on which she engaged me focused only on discussing her investments, I had to explain that if she wanted more guidance, she would need to retain me for additional services and time. This would allow me to understand the holes in her current plan and ensure they were addressed during her lifetime. While it felt awkward to ask a dying woman for money, I knew that if I was going to be of service to her I needed to dedicate additional time and resources to make this process streamlined and meaningful.

4. Taking care of myself so I can care for others
When I reviewed how I handled the news, I recognized that some of my behavior wasn’t healthy. I drank more alcohol to numb feelings, ate more sugar to lift my mood and didn’t sleep well. This impacted other work that I had scheduled and made me ineffective to others. I knew this behavior couldn’t go on for long. I had to continue to be healthy so I could have a clear mind and continue to help others.

As advisors, we are participants in the intimate details of our client’s lives. They invite us into these situations to gain our guidance. But in order to be effective, one must feel and understand what one’s client is going through. Doing this for multiple clients in various situations can be draining.

As I’ve written on the importance of mental health and self-care throughout my career, I know that I cannot process these situations by myself — I think it’s time I find a therapist who can provide me the type of care I need, so I can continue to refresh myself and provide the guidance my client’s need from me. I also need to be diligent with what I’m feeding myself — both literally and what I consume in the media. It’s important that I maintain a healthy body and mind so that those who need my skills get the best of me.

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