Financial Planning Lessons from a Tragic Event

Journal of Financial Planning: July 2018


David M. Cordell, Ph.D., CFA, CFP®, CLU®, is director of finance programs at the University of Texas at Dallas.

I’m going to tell a story about a tragic event. Although it was experienced by my family, it could have happened to you or your clients. I hope learning about my story will provide some lessons in coping with those situations when they arise in your personal or professional life.

My son died.

If that sentence seems harsh, abrupt, and without transition, then it is a fair reflection of the event it represents. It has three ordinary words in a simple sentence construction, yet the underlying concept is too complex for human understanding.

My Story Is Not Uncommon

On Sunday July 30, 2006, my wife Martha and I drove across town to pick up our son Rob, a 24-year-old college student, at his apartment for a family outing. His apartment mate answered the door and indicated that Rob was still asleep. When I went back to the bedroom, I found him lying on his back with indications that he may already have died. I yelled out to the roommate to call 911 and then to retrieve Martha from the car. While waiting for EMS to arrive, Martha and I gave CPR, following the instructions of the 911 operator. EMS arrived just a few minutes later, and six attendants worked in concert in the small bedroom.

Everyone has seen medical TV shows when the doctor applies the defibrillator paddles to try to re-start a patient’s heart. It is always very dramatic. Not many of us have had the extraordinarily horrifying experience of watching paddles applied to their first-born child. I don’t recommend it.

After several efforts to re-start Rob’s heart, the EMS personnel carried him from the bedroom on a stretcher. We followed the ambulance, which showed no urgency, to the hospital and waited and waited in a special room until someone came to tell us what we already knew. Our son was dead.

We were led to another room where Rob lay on a gurney, and we stayed with him for over an hour. Martha spent much of the time standing next to the gurney, leaning over with her head on Rob’s chest and crying, “Why, Rob? Why?” My own overwhelming grief was compounded a thousand-fold at this heart-wrenching scene. Would you expect us ever to recover from that experience? I couldn’t help thinking about Michelangelo’s Pietà, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—a mother grieving over the death of her child, although I am not comparing Rob to Jesus.

Rob was prone to excess. We were concerned that he was drinking too much, and we assumed that he died of alcohol poisoning. It was three months later—yes, three months—before we learned from the autopsy that he had died of a drug overdose—a so-called cocktail of morphine, Xanax, and cocaine. Sadly, our case is not extraordinary. More than 60,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses last year alone.

Lesson 1: What to Say and What to Do

Just about all of us expect out parents to die before we do. Most of us recognize that there is a good chance that our spouse will die before we do. Hardly any of us expect our children to die before we do. The sense of loss is so far beyond any other life experience.

I have seen the difference in the reaction of my friends and acquaintances. When they learned that my mother died, they responded with an appropriate and concerned, “I’m sorry for your loss.” When they learned that my son died, they gasped. They told me that they didn’t know what to say. There really was nothing that they could say.

Friends can provide comfort by their quiet, supportive presence. Trying to “say the right thing” is futile. “He’s in a better place” may seem like a comforting thought, but I wanted him to be back at home with his parents. That was the better place as far as I was concerned.

The situation is a bit more complicated in a client-adviser situation. If you are truly friends, you can behave just like friends should. But if the relationship is purely professional, you could be perceived as presumptuous. Worse still, you could be perceived as trying to capitalize on the death by suddenly seeming considerably more attentive.

What can you do? Of course, every situation is different, but here are a few thoughts:

Be ever mindful that tragedies happen, and they will happen to your clients. Be ready to share a facial expression of concerned sadness, not of convulsive horror. The former reveals empathy while the latter jolts the client back to the moment of the tragedy.

Don’t say that you understand how they feel because you remember what it was like when your grandparent, parent, or sibling died. Those events, sad as they are, don’t compare to the loss of a child. Unless you have had the same experience, you can’t understand. We feel intense sorrow, loss, pain, guilt, shame, and a thousand other feelings that have no name. Our fraternity has only one requirement for initiation, and I am certain that you don’t want to qualify.

What will you say when your client tells you that he/she lost a child? Don’t wait to figure it out and play it by ear.

  • Don’t say you know how they feel. You don’t.
  • Don’t tell them that your mother died not long ago. It doesn’t help.
  • Don’t tell them they must be devastated by the loss. Of course they are.
  • Don’t ask what happened. You’ll find out eventually.
  • Don’t tell them that they need to move on with their lives. The lives they planned are forever altered.

It isn’t about you or your experiences or your feelings or your suggestions. It is about the client. In fact, the less you say, the better.

I often send a note that includes a prayer for the death of a child that comes from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. If both you and your client are believers, the knowledge that you are praying for them will be extremely comforting.

Make a note in your calendar to send another card after one month passes. We had unbelievable support immediately after Rob’s death—meals, flowers, cards, and other acts of kindness. But it evaporated soon thereafter. It is common for reality to grab hold at the one-month mark after all the well-wishers have returned to their normal lives, but our lives would never, ever return to our former normal.

The first year is so very painful. Mother’s Day. Father’s Day. Easter. Christmas. Thanksgiving. Birthdays. The one-year anniversary. Each resurrects the pain of the loss. Send another card at the end of the first year.

Lesson 2: Develop a Personal Relationship with Your Client

A personal relationship doesn’t mean that you have to become weekend golf buddies. But you should know some details about your clients’ families. Ask questions. It is easy to say, “Can you tell me more about your family? I don’t want to pry, but it would help me better understand your situation.”

Yes, some information may be available on a data form, but it isn’t the same. A form converts the life of a human being into impersonal data. Of course, some clients will balk at talking about personal issues, and that’s OK. But many will be pleased at the opportunity to share details of their family issues, some of which you’d just as soon not know! They will be pleased that you care about them as people, and not as a meal ticket. You will know when the client thinks you’re becoming too intrusive. At every client meeting your first inquiries should concern non-financial matters. A review of the family comes before a review of the balance sheet.

We have all known cases in which much of the relationship with the client is so-called hand-holding, and it is a fact that personal relationships can often make up for below-par performance. You may find that your sincere concern for your clients’ non-financial well-being is worth more than a few measly basis points.

About 35 years ago, John Naisbitt wrote the bestseller Megatrends in which he coined the phrase “high tech, high touch.” Financial planning in this era certainly requires technology and technical expertise, but what should never be neglected is the high touch part. Indeed, you might ask yourself what the main characteristic that separates a financial planner from a robo-adviser is. It is the human connection. A warm greeting. An expression of concern. High touch.

Lesson 3: Recognize That Some Wounds Never Heal

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote the well-known book On Death and Dying 50 years ago. She identified stages that individuals typically go through when they face their own impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In subsequent writings she expanded the relevance to other aspects of life, including the death of a loved one. Always be mindful, though, that some wounds never heal and that sometimes we have flashbacks that are comparable to PTSD.

A few months after Rob’s death, I walked to the student union for lunch. As I stood in line I caught a glimpse from the corner of my eye of a young man with a mop of curly blond hair. Could it be Rob? For a fraction of an instant, the immeasurable period of time that separates fantasy from reality, I experienced a rapturous level of joy that I had never known. My son had been resurrected. It had all been a surreal nightmare from which I had finally awoken. He was alive!

Then the sledgehammer of reality slammed into my chest. The young man was too blonde. Too tall. Too thin. Most of all, he was too alive.

I wish I were articulate enough to describe the speed and depth of my descent from ecstasy to misery. I have tried to find the right words, but I can’t. I don’t think they exist.

Your clients, friends, or your own family may not suffer the same sort of debilitating experience, but they will have their own struggles. They will deal with them in their own way in their own time, or maybe they won’t deal with them at all. You may feel yourself becoming impatient if they aren’t responsive or don’t recover as you would like. You can help them, but you can’t heal them. Recognize that you do not have the answers. No one does.

Lesson 4: Do Your Job!

Soon after Rob died, Martha called our property and casualty insurance agent to inform the office that Rob had passed away and should be removed from our automobile policy. The agency dutifully followed instructions. Several months later, Martha called about another issue. During the conversation, the agent asked if Rob was being insured elsewhere.

Martha was terribly upset and insisted that we change insurance carriers, or at least agents. It didn’t matter how much more the new policies may cost. The well was poisoned, and she would never have been able to interact with that agency without being reminded of Rob’s death and the carelessness, or callousness, of the agency at committing such a faux pas.

Rob’s estate was small, mainly a brokerage account that was established by my mother. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t name a beneficiary. I wanted to transfer his balance to our other two sons, and Rob didn’t have a will. I deserve blame for that failure, and I suffered for it.

To be named administrator of his estate, I had to go to the county courthouse with his birth and death certificates and swear out an affidavit. It was an unpleasant, but necessary task. What I didn’t expect is a fee of $250. Yes, I had to pay $250 because my son died. Imagine your clients, who are already buried under an emotional avalanche from the loss of a child, feeling that government is piling on at a time when they desperately need to be lifted up.

You have asked your clients if they have current wills and other estate planning documents, and you may even have asked about their adult children. You have probably asked if they have named beneficiaries in their wills, life insurance policies, and retirement and brokerage accounts, rather than leaving items to their estate. Do you follow up to make sure that they follow up? Sure, it seems like a thankless task that generates no revenue. But it is a critical service, and service is what your profession is all about. Consider it as pro bono work, and be conscious of the fact that a death can trigger many other necessary changes. For example, Rob was listed as a beneficiary in our wills, retirement plans, and brokerage accounts.

Post Script

There was one positive financial planning lesson subsequent to Rob’s death. Although some consumer advocates contend that life insurance on a child is a poor use of money, I elected to purchase a child rider on my policy. The death benefit was slow in coming, but it certainly helped to lessen the financial burden.

Rob was an Eagle Scout, and we had him cremated in his uniform. We anticipated that we would eventually move to a different city, and did not want to leave him behind. Martha was especially anxious to move to avoid bad memories as much as possible, and I was offered a position at a university only two miles from the home where I grew up. We interred Rob’s ashes in the columbarium at our church, only three feet away from my parents’ niche, and we bought three additional niches to accommodate the whole family.

We established the Rob Cordell Memorial Scholarship at Texas Tech University in the Center for Addiction Studies, and many kind friends and family members contributed. Every year we receive a letter of thanks from a scholarship recipient.

General Financial Planning Principles