Speakers at conferences for advisors frequently declare two statistics: The average age of widowhood is 55, and 75 percent of women will be widowed by the age of 56.
The startled audience gasps, wondering what it means for an advisory practice. There is only one problem: These statistics aren’t true.
In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the median age of widowhood across all ethnicities was 59.4 for a first marriage and 60.3 for a second marriage. This alone is several years older than the standard quotes. In addition, the average age of widowhood is likely significantly higher the median age quoted, since that same report states that only 23 percent of men and 51 percent of women aged 70 and above had ever been widowed. If only half of women over seventy had ever been widowed, how could 75 percent be widowed by the age of 56? How could the average age of widowhood be 55?
Finally, the life expectancy of a man born in the U.S. is currently 76 years (up from 70 in 1980). Since married men live longer than their single counterparts, in order for either of the oft-quoted statistics to be true, logic requires that wives must generally be at least 15 years younger than their spouses. In reality, the average gap has remained steady over time at between two and three years.
Clearly, then, it is time to leave those fright-inducing statistics behind. At the same time, the population is aging and the ranks of widows, currently consisting of 11.3 million women, will continue to swell. This devastating transition prompts a high percentage to switch financial advisors or seek one out for the first time. They are aware that hundreds of thousands of advisors can invest their money, but they want more. They look for a competent professional who understands their grief and the challenges of their lives, and that is where they will place their business.
For future success, it is therefore crucial that financial professionals educate themselves so they understand the grief process and are equipped to communicate with and support widows. Use these five easy starting points to improve your service to widows:
1. Ask good questions and really listen to her answers.
Too many people tell a grieving widow they know how she feels, or they offer advice on how she should feel. Distinguish yourself by being willing to invite her story so you find out how she actually does feel. Ask non-invasive questions like, “What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through?” or “What things have people said that were helpful, and what have they said that was unintentionally hurtful to you?” Listen well, and ask further questions based on what she tells you.
2. Every time you talk to the widow, whether on the phone or in person, give her the next time you will call to check in.
Grieving people are often anxious about becoming a burden to others. Calling anyone to ask for assistance takes courage and the willingness to risk rejection, both of which are in short supply. It is incredibly reassuring to know that you will call her instead. When you call, begin by asking what kind of a day it is for her and listen to her experience before going on to ask what questions she has for you.
3. Act in straightforward ways that build her competence.
Widowed women are afraid others will take advantage of them. Take great care not to speak in a condescending tone or to convey the impression she is incapable, deficient or less than a full partner in the process. Assess her level of knowledge and educate her to the depth she desires. Keep her updated with easy-to-understand bullet points and summaries of your activities together, including the basic rationale behind them.
4. Consider providing non-financial resource lists.
Use input from clients, friends and associates to build a non-financial resource-and-referral list. Then if she needs a professional service (anything from car maintenance to a plumber), she doesn’t have to pick someone out of the yellow pages. Remind her that your list is based on input from many people and you are continually refining it, so you look forward to getting her feedback afterwards. When you follow up, thank her for helping you make it easier for others in her situation who need services in the future.
5. Be patient with her.
Grief is a lengthy and somewhat unpredictable process, especially after such a major loss. Expect ups and downs, with frequent sad periods for months. Many widows describe the second year as even harder than the first, since the reality has fully sunk in and they’ve let go of so much, but they have not yet developed new goals or a meaningful purpose in life. Be among the few people who are willing to listen and support her over the long haul.
These are just a few of the concepts to put into practice so you can serve the ever-growing numbers of widowed clients, whatever their age.
Amy Florian is CEO of Corgenius, which specializes in teaching people how to support and interact with a person who is grieving a life-changing loss.