He died, now what do I say

He What? Died? Now What Do I Say?

In a pandemic and pretty much in life, people are dealing with grief at some level every single day. Death, divorce, loss of a job and lately, the death of the life as we once knew it pre-COVID.  Subscribe to my newsletter.

Recently, I ran into the mom of my son’s elementary school friend who I hadn’t seen in 5 years. We were actually sitting in the hot tub at the gym, catching up, casually chatting away and she quietly told me that her son had died this last summer from cancer. Wow, I was not expecting that.

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Now, what do I say?

I have not yet experienced the loss of a close loved-one or family member but I am surrounded by many who have; my sister-in-law, a friend, my client’s CPA in Florida whose husband just died of COVID, and most of my clients.  People often reach out for financial advice during such transitions, and as advisors, we’ve studied for years on investments and taxes, but have had absolutely no training in helping our clients through the emotional side of events, good or bad.

Grief expert, Amy Florian of Corgenius, Inc, teaches (financial advisors specifically) through her books “No Longer Awkward” and “A Friend Indeed” how individuals in the midst of grief may wish to be spoken to, and how simple platitudes like “I’m sorry” actually don’t do much to acknowledge the loss or comfort the survivor.

What can I say, what can I do to comfort and acknowledge her pain, her loss?

There are many things we can and should say. Start by actually using and saying the name of the person who died. Don’t dance around it, don’t avoid it. Acknowledge what happened, that it sucks and that you are in pain too. Invite them to share and talk if they want. Or be silent together. Acknowledge their pain and that it won’t go away anytime soon and support them by affirming the feelings they are having now, whatever they are, are normal. Offer to help in a specific way, like picking up kids from school or getting groceries, that sort of thing.

“I’m sorry” is such a common thing to say to someone upon hearing of a recent loss, so seemingly natural, typically the first words out of our mouth. But use caution.  “I know how you feel”, “You should….(fill in your well-meaning, expert advice here)” or “Call me”.  Really, you expect ME to call YOU for help? I’m grieving! Go away.  I am so guilty of that one.

If you think about each phrase, you can see why they may come across as unreasonable or trite, no matter how well-intended.

Also, use real terms like “died”, or “terminal illness”, rather than euphemisms. I remember my college roommate told me that when her dad was sick and dying while she was in high school, adults around her would talk and when they said the word “cancer”, their voice would suddenly fall to a whisper, as if saying it that way would minimize the ultimately fatal consequences of his illness. Yet it is such a natural thing for people to do.

It is a fine, precarious line, but because it is so prevalent in the client-advisor relationship, I am learning and preparing myself to be better equipped to talk about these deeply personal matters. And above all, listen.

My stoic Norwegian/Germanic/Lutheran heritage has served me well in many areas. Not so well, however, in the empathetic, comforting, talking-about-your-feelings sort of way.  But, like many things worth improving, these are behaviors that can be learned and improved upon through awareness and training.

Ultimately, here’s what I said and did.

When my friend told me about her son’s death, we talked about what happened, I asked some questions and mostly let her do the talking.  We laughed a little too because he had been a little fireball of a boy. I used his name, I shared some of my memories, and I hugged her.  I felt more prepared than ever before to talk to her and I’d like to think she felt comforted by talking with me.

I jokingly refer to myself as “mid-century modern”. Middle-aged but a timeless classic, right!  A side effect of aging is experiencing the loss of many different beings, parents, pets, classmates, clients.  The chance of me outliving my husband and sealing my membership into the Modern Widows Club is great.

My friend and fellow advisor, Megan Kopka, CFP®, CRPC® co-founded the Cape Fear Modern Widows Club in Wilmington, NC.   We’ve been in a Zoom study group for a couple of years focusing on women in transition but had never met. We finally got that last week as roomies at the XY Planning Network Live conference in Denver. I knew she was a widow and at one point our conversation turned to how she and her husband, Keith, had met.  Sadly, he had been diagnosed with ALS and died in 2014, early in their marriage. Together, they had faced the inevitable with bravery, grace and strong support from their community. It really was a beautiful story and I’m glad we got the chance to talk about it.

Without some of the reading and training I’d recently had, I’m really not so sure I would have been courageous enough to talk about him.

I know my time for dealing with grief is gently creeping closer and closer.  I’ll have my own story to tell.  But for now, I am content in helping others both with the financial and emotional side of loss.


Angie Furubotten-LaRosee, Certified Financial Planner™, speaker, podcaster, and founder of Avea Financial Planning, LLC, a fee-only, fiduciary financial advice and investment management firm for women nearing or in retirement, especially those who have experienced the death of their spouse.   www.Aveafp.com

You can read this article on the Tri-City Area Journal of Business site as well.

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