I’ve known Paul my whole life. He’s a pretty easy-going guy, but lately he’s had an emotional couple of months. In the span of a couple of weeks, Paul’s had to say goodbye to a dear friend, as well as a much-loved colleague, both of whose cancer journeys came to their conclusion in the last few weeks. As you can imagine, those losses have weighed heavily on his mind.
If you meet Paul, you’d realize quickly that his line of work often deals directly with end-of-life issues. Unlike most of us, for him, talking about this is a daily occurrence. You might think that it would make things easier for him to process – but he will most assuredly tell you that it is not. In some ways, I think, it might be even harder for him than it is for most people. Sometimes, when you are faced with things most people don’t want to contemplate on a daily basis, it makes you even more susceptible to an emotional response.
While we don’t talk about it enough in Financial Planning, grief has a massive impact on our long-term financial and estate plans. Grief can easily cause someone to completely change their existing long-term plans. It can be increased by poor planning, and lessened by good planning. Despite all of this, I rarely see any planning software or tools that attempt to take this into account. Planning is rarely all about financial facts.
There’s a lot of things that we don’t talk about openly in our society, and grieving is one of them. It is, in the words of Death, Sex and Money podcast host Anna Sale, death and grieving are one of “the things that we think about a lot and need to talk about more.” I doubt a more accurate statement has ever been made on the topic.
Our brains are fundamentally wired to avoid thinking about uncomfortable things such our own demise, and to do whatever we can to avoid grief. Dr. Russell James, of Texas Tech University has done an amazing amount of research in this area, including looking at MRI studies of the brain as people contemplate making estate and end-of life decisions. In his words, as humans, we are innately wired to avoid any contemplation that we or those around us might cease to exist. In his book “Inside the mind of a Bequest Donor”, he points out that the most popular option to “Are you willing to donate your organs”, is neither yes, nor no, but actually “I’d rather not think about it”. There is a reason, he says, that there is a product called Life Insurance, but not Death Insurance!
Some people, like Paul, are faced with daily reminders that help get over the avoidance of the topic, but it doesn’t mean that it makes the grief process any easier. Certainly the pandemic made many of us tackle this topic head on – at our firm, we’ve been surveying people who attend my talks for charities for the last three years – and on average, about 50% of attendees have stated that the pandemic made them rethink their wills and estate plans. That’s a HUGE number if you stop to think on what a difficult topic this for us at a deep biological level. It would not surprise me if this is the highest percentage of Canadians writing a will since the end of the Second World War.
Grieving is, and always will be part of our life experience, even if we don’t like to think about it. At its most fundamental level, its what makes us human – we will all experience loss multiple times throughout our life, and it too, will be part of our legacy when we are gone.
One aspect of grief that is often over looked is the importance of counselling. Certainly, for myself, counseling during my mother’s illness, and after her passing, helped me process the experience. I do not have the words to properly thank the therapist who assisted me in processing my mom’s journey.
Additionally, I’ve learned in recent years of “Death Doulas”. While the role of a end-of-life Doula is often focussed on helping the person who is dying, they also can provide assistance to the family and loved ones. This is still an unregulated procession in Canada, but is rapidly growing. I’m blessed to have a colleague who in the last few years has taken up this profession, and her workshop on the topic was one of the most incredible mornings of my professional life. I cannot remember any other time in my profession, where a group of us sat down to talk about our own grief at losing clients, and the unique role that planners find themselves in when someone passes away. We all had felt alone in processing our experience, but it turned out that all of us had been deeply affected over the years. It was a remarkable moment.
There are also a number of peer support groups for those processing grief. Two friends & colleagues of mine have been highly involved with “Camp Widow”, which is hosted by an organization called Soaring Spirits. This is a positive, uplifting weekend camp for widows (of all ages), which is designed to help people process their grief and heal through community and connection with others who share the same experience. Both my friends found tremendous comfort from this program.
Grief is a Journey…think of it as a legacy.
I often talk about legacy and financial planning, but grief is in its own special class. We really don’t talk about it enough, or the impact it might have on us. Planning is entirely theoretical, but as Paul knows all to well, the reality of grief is that no matter what you do to prepare, you cannot avoid dealing with it. Grief will always be part of our lives, and our legacy. Paul’s experience is each of our experiences as well. Ultimately, we are all Paul at some point in our life.
Without question, this has been an uncomfortable read, and its quite different than most of my articles. Its certainly be challenging writing it as well. I’m grateful if you’ve made it this far.
PS – my middle name happens to be Paul.