What To Say [and NOT say] To A Grieving Widowed Client

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grieving widow phoneThe phone rings and it’s your client, Sue.

“Frank’s gone. Died in his sleep last night. We knew he was living on borrowed time . . . but I can’t believe he’s really dead. Oh, my . . . I just wanted you to know”. . . and she breaks into sobbing tears. WHAT DO YOU SAY?

Or maybe the caller says, “Hello, my name is Betty, and I think I need your help. My husband died recently, and my friend gave me your name.” WHAT DO YOU SAY?

If you only say, “You have my deepest sympathy,” that’s not going to cut it. Same for, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Yet, this is often what people say.

It may be difficult to deal with your widowed client’s grief. That’s especially hard when a woman is reeling from their husband’s death and the death of her dream of a shared life together with the man she loved.

So, what do you say at the time of death? You want to offer words expressing that you care—to be empathetic.

Four Communication Tips for Impactful Empathy

1. Don’t focus on your own feelings by saying “I’m so sorry.”

Rather, concentrate on what’s happening to the widow. Try this substitute phrase, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through now. How has this past week been for you?” Pauses are OK. Good words to further the conversation are “Would you like to tell me more?”

2. Speak her late husband’s name.

We widows don’t want the world to forget the man we loved. Offer your own anecdotes about her spouse and how you’ll remember him. (If you didn’t know him, it’s appropriate to say something like, “Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to meet [name] before he passed. What is it about [name] that you would have liked me to know?”

3. Avoid these clichés.

They aren’t helpful or comforting to a new widow:

• He’s in a better place now.

This phrase makes assumptions—about life, death, and your client’s viewpoint. Don’t cause additional distress.
Instead, talk about her husband. Share memories of him, tell a story about a time you spent with him or an important value he cherished—such as caring deeply for his family. Keep his memory alive.

• Call me if you need anything.

Your intention sounds caring, but this puts a burden on her to reach out to you. She’s probably in an emotional fog and may not even know what help she needs from you. She also might feel uncomfortable asking for assistance.
Instead, say, “Would it be okay if I call you on Thursday so we can schedule time to catch up over a cup of coffee soon?”

I know what you’re going through.

Every person, marriage, and experience with death is unique. You can’t understand what a widow is experiencing, and this comment isn’t soothing. Even though I’m a widow myself, I never say this to another widow.

Instead, say, “It’s normal for you to feel (confused/angry/stressed).” Acknowledge her feelings and reassure your client that her emotions aren’t unusual and are part a larger grieving process.

It’s all part of God’s plan.

You may make an incorrect assumption about a woman’s beliefs and religion. Sidestep an uncomfortable or hurtful situation for the widow. Instead, say, “It’s hard to know why death happens. None of us understand the answers. But I want you to know I’m here to help make this difficult time easier for you.”

You’re still young. You’ll find someone new. You can remarry.

The pain of losing a spouse is immeasurable, and the idea of sharing that intimacy with a new person can be upsetting. Although some may think this could cheer up a grieving widow, it’s likely to have the opposite effect.

Indeed, about 6 months after my husband’s death, one professional asked me, “Have you started dating yet, Kathleen? You’re a pretty lady. Certainly there’s some man out there who would love to take care of you.” SHEEZE! I couldn’t leave the room fast enough as his upsetting comments brought a rush of tears.

Instead, focus on important friendships your widowed client enjoys. “You are fortunate to have many good friends. Their support will help you through this difficult time. Take them up on offers to help.”

You’ll get through this and be even stronger in the future.

Early on, she’s just getting by hour to hour at first, gradually making it through an entire day without being totally numb. Whatever might be in the future is impossible for a widow to visualize soon after her husband’s death. She doesn’t have a clue how she can be better in the future.

Instead, talk about how death isn’t fair when it comes. “It’s really so difficult now because you loved your husband very dearly during his lifetime. Yes, your relationship is certainly different now that he has passed . . . but I know your love for him will always last.”

4. Just Say Something.

Regardless of what you say to a widow, it’s most important to say something. Acknowledge that her spouse is dead. Don’t avoid the topic. Rather, offer condolences and talk of something you admired about her husband. People often sidestep the topic of death altogether, which can be hurtful to those who are grieving. Your words and expressions are critical to show you care and are supportive in her grief.

Death is a natural part of every life. Throughout your career as a financial advisor, you will assist widowed clients who must deal with grief and loss. You can set yourself apart as a special advisor with your empathetic support and care for the widows you serve. Indeed, your caring services will make a significant impact and will be viewed as priceless!

Kathleen M. Rehl, PhD, CFP®, CFT™, is the author of the multi-award winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. She is passionate about empowering her “widowed sisters” to feel financially secure… and helping advisors work effectively with these women. Kathleen and her work have been featured in dozens of publications. Enthusiastic sponsors of her presentations include planning firms, industry affiliates, non-profits, professional organizations, and U.S. Army Outreach Services centers.
  • My Portfolio Guide June 17, 2014, 5:44 pm

    Touchy subject …obviously, but I’m not so sure about some of these tips. Of course nobody in their right mind is going to say, “you’re young..you can find someone new etc” but some of the other initial statements are appropriate assuming you put them in proper context and add a tactful question to it.

  • Kathleen M. Rehl June 17, 2014, 6:33 pm

    Perhaps these cliches feel comfortable and appropriate to the person speaking these words. That’s because they are familiar phrases. We’ve used them before, and they roll out almost automatically. But being on the receiving line, as a widow, I didn’t find them helpful. In fact, I found myself trying to comfort the other person who was feeling sorry about my husband’s death, for example. I suggest you try dropping the cliche and simply go directly to your tactful question or comment. Those words can be very helpful and meaningful to a new widow. Thanks for caring!

  • Marty Morua June 19, 2014, 1:38 am

    Lots of these cliches are simply trained responses. Your ideas are forcing people out of their comfort zones and I think its wonderful. Though I’ve had loved ones pass away I cannot imagine how someone else might feel when theirs do. Everyone has different emotional connections to their loved ones. My sad moments (or happy ones) are completely unique and though others have walked through those same paths they have not walked in my shoes.

    I hope more financial advisors have the opportunity to read your suggestions. I’ll certainly be sharing them with many of my financial advisory friends.

    Good work, as usual Kathleen!

    Marty Morua

  • Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP June 19, 2014, 12:58 pm

    Thanks for sharing my work with your colleagues, Marty. As more financial advisors “get it,” we can serve more widows well.

  • spy May 3, 2016, 9:18 pm

    personally i don’t care for “I can’t imagine what you’re going through now. How has this past week been for you?” ….im tired of talking about it and hearing those words. i find ” i am sorry for your loss very comforting” so not everyone likes hearing the same thing.

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  • Veve April 18, 2018, 1:50 am

    A dear widow friend has been there for me for some time now while I went through treatment for breast cancer. She is my rock. Then recently my husband and I decided to move forward with retirement plans, bought a camper, planning some roadtrips, etc. Then it hit me…. Although she hasn’t openly given me any sign of sadness, I feel like I should have downplayed my excitement because she and her husband, who was her soulmate, were planning their retirement travel when he suddenly passed away two years ago. How can I be a better caring friend during all of this?