Talking About Death with Clients: The Elephant in the Room

Steve Legler is our guest host today and he welcomes Dr. Dawn Gross and Nancy Belza in order to learn how to better talk about death with clients.

Let’s talk family enterprise explores global ideas, concepts and models that help family enterprise advisors better serve their family clients, brought to you by the family enterprise exchange.

Hello, and welcome to the let’s talk family enterprise podcast. My name is Steve Legler. I’m excited to be your guest host for today’s episode. Today we’re going to be talking about a subject that too often doesn’t get discussed, despite the fact that it is inevitable. I’m speaking of course about death and I’m so thankful to have a couple of experts on the subject of talking about death joining me today, which is going to make this a whole lot easier. So let me kick things off by introducing our guests. Don gross and Nancy Belzer are two of the co founders of dialogues, which they’ll tell us more about as we go along. Don Nancy, Welcome, and thanks for joining me today.

Thanks for having us, Steve.

Thank you see,

as we’ve talked about, amongst ourselves, our audience is family enterprise advisors. And so there are people who deal with family businesses. Pretty well every day and talking about all kinds of subjects. Why should family enterprise advisors be interested in this whole idea about talking about death?

Well, for me having come from the industry, I feel that in this death defying culture that we have few of us take the time to contemplate the certainty of our death, or that it can happen at any time. Yet, what I have found after doing this work is that when we do take the time to contemplate death, it’s vital to putting us in touch with our best and truest self and it encourages us to live more fully and to lift based on our priorities. It’s also the best way that I know to support one another and to protect families from conflict. I believe that one of the legacies we can leave our loved ones is to ensure that they have the information they need when the time comes. This is going to allow them to focus on grieving and feeling rather than be consumed by stressful searches for information or even worse conflicts around decisions

while death defying culture. I’ve never heard it said that way but that’s a really interesting way of putting it.

I can speak from the healthcare industry where my background is that in our medical training, we focus a lot of attention exclusively on trying to figure out how to keep people healthy or how to figure out how to get them back into a healthy state. And we never formally address the fact that in the end, quite literally, we all will experience that and how do we approach that with as much knowledge with as much grace as we do in supporting health. So death defying is very, very prevalent.

Right everyone is thinking everyone knows it’s coming but nobody wants to even acknowledge it as if maybe somehow, you know talking about it is gonna bring it about. Do you find that that’s part of it?

No question. There’s certainly this taboo mentality of don’t bring it toward us and by mentioning the words death or preparing for my own death, or for my loved ones that that either is invoking this to come now, or is suggesting that we don’t want someone with x and so we’re now trying to hasten their death. And other neither of which is

oh, so people don’t want to bring it up because they don’t want to be like forecasts. This is their secret wish. Current.

Se you know, this cultural avoidance has been pervasive, and it’s made worse by these truly complex nature of our social and systematic challenges we’re facing with the, you know, aging and how we’re all living longer and medical and so forth. But the way I see it like passengers on a raft headed towards a precipice, the longer we wait to act, the harder it is to avoid a disaster. That’s why we’re here today to say we need to have this conversation. Because some extraordinary times.

So yeah, people are living longer. So things that used to be predictable that you know, grandpa would die in his 70s. Well, grandpa’s in his 90s and he’s still here. So this this could be a lot longer than we all expected. So this is changing even the number of generations of people in a family that are that are involved in some of these transitions in these families that we’re serving.

Absolutely. There’s another term you may or may not be familiar with called the sandwich generation. And now because of how effective our healthcare and science innovations have become, we have what I would call the club sandwich generation. So not only do we have people caring for their aging parents as well as very young children, you now have parents and grandparents aging into long, you know, elder hood, if you will, as well as then children growing up and still being cared for so multiple generations involves much longer periods of time of stable health as well as much longer periods of decline. Of Time of declining health, all of which involves how do we keep ourselves financially secure through all of these different generational needs?

So that’s one of the subjects that a lot of our family enterprise advisors, they’re involved more on the structural side of things on the on the financial side of things. And so they they like talking about those straightforward subjects without getting into the what they call the soft stuff of talking about, you know, when somebody actually is going to die. And so, you talk about the fact that this is a universal topic, but we need to normalize it. What do you mean when you say normalize it?

So much of what we look at is in the realm of education, how do we become familiar with language with topics that we now in a sense take for granted as professionals in the financial world, you have your own set of educational topics and then language and structure to conversations that you are now an expert in? And that’s true for every field in healthcare. Certainly, physicians are notorious for speaking a foreign language to anyone outside of a medically trained profession. What can we do to break down these areas of expertise into language and knowledge so everyone can interact and engage and death quite honestly is a specific topic area that can have education provided around it, what to anticipate from both the physical medical as well as the sociological and the spiritual, for psychologic and what is the language that we can provide in a structure to engaging in conversation so that we have permission to be curious to ask questions, and to get our answers addressed. We know when we don’t give ourselves context to have conversations, that what fills voids of knowledge is mythology. And often, misinformation, lack of information ultimately gets filled. We’d rather be filled with accurate information so we can make proactive and effective choices that make a difference for ourselves and are aligned with our values.

I really like that. That word you use the vacuum like because we’re not talking about it. There’s this vacuum that so often gets filled with all kinds of misinformation. And you also mentioned the word education, and you’re referring to finding the right word. So is this really about education and vocabulary? If we don’t talk about certain things, how do we learn the vocabulary to talk about it in a in a useful way?

Absolutely. By practicing certain words, just learning a new language if we, if we speak, you know, in a more literal term learning a language that is foreign to us. So I was just traveling outside of my home country in the United States to another country where their native language is Spanish. I needed to learn that language. Now some of those words seem familiar there’s overlap to them, but many of the words absolutely are unfamiliar to me and I don’t understand the context and the order in which they’re spoken and what they mean. And so in different areas of knowledge, there are different languages that are spoken. So literally getting our tongues comfortable. saying the words literally just by practicing is one of the fundamental steps. So getting us to be clear that there is a difference between saying My mother died and my mother passed away. It’s not that one is right or wrong, but the context and the choice of using words like death first past are important for us to become aware of, and to recognize that one is the context we would choose to use one or the other, because there’s purpose to both potentially, but they are not necessarily just interchangeable. And for many people saying one or the other of these words is uncomfortable. So practicing it as well as understanding it is an example of that education.

So I mentioned that at the outset that you founded an organization called with dy a LOGUES. Can you tell how did that come about? What was your your initial story that got you to you know, really get into this as a as a subject matter to become experts?

Well, Don studied and became an expert through her studies, of course, as a doctor now, palliative care doctor, for me, I had retired after 30 years in financial services, and it really is this conversation that took me out and I don’t think anything else would have gotten me out of retirement and the reason being is when I turned 50, I started to experience an unusually high number of acquaintances and co workers start to pass away people in their 50s and 60s, and I started to take notice of what was said and what was left unsaid. But it wasn’t until a good friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that this topic of pre planning and conversations became a passion of mine. My friend was a bachelor he had moved to the states in the 80s and had only one living relative who lived in France. One day when I was visiting him, he told me you know, the end is almost near and my sister’s going to be swooping in here to do all she can to cure me, but I know that there’s no cure, he said, and I’m at peace, please. I don’t want my sister to keep me alive. I don’t want to live if I don’t have my Dignitas tea, I don’t want all the money I’ve made to be spent on my care wanted to go to my nephew’s promise me, he said and Steve, even though the conversation was difficult and uncomfortable at that point, I said sure, having no idea what I committed to you know, as you can imagine, his sister flew in and did absolutely everything he didn’t want and it wasn’t because she didn’t want to listen to me at which, you know, she didn’t know me from Adam. So she did. The thing was she was working on her best intentions. But unless we have that conversation with the people that are going to be called upon to care for us, their best intentions are basically what they would want it end of life. And that may not be what we want. So when people say to me, isn’t talking about that scary to say no, there’s something actually far scarier and that’s the consequences. of not talking about it. That’s a bad debt. And a bad death is anything that we don’t want. And so that day when I saw what happened to my friend, I said Not on my watch. Never again, what I wasn’t able to do for him. I wouldn’t do for 1000s more, and that’s why we started dialogues.

So that’s a huge thing. The words I jotted down here were left unsaid things left unsaid. And so I guess the way this ties in with with our audience of people working with families is sometimes these families aren’t saying things but either we can be the ones who ask the questions and get them to say the things that they really shouldn’t be saying. Or also, you know, be someone who witnesses that. Yes, this is what the person did want.

Yeah, I think you’re you and those in your profession. You’re our listeners today are in the perfect position, to bear witness to what’s happening inside of families, to what the family values are, what are their priorities, what are they saying, as well as hearing the silence hearing what not? what’s not being said perhaps between family members between generations? I certainly know in medicine that so often, someone will say Don’t tell them how sick I am or don’t tell them their diagnosis because we love each other. And we don’t want to hurt someone. We don’t want to scare them. We don’t want them to lose hope. You pick the why it’s all in there. And the opportunity is someone who’s outside that family, but has been given the privilege and the honor of being brought in you know, who is this Trusted Advisor Now, that word advising is quite literally what you’re in a position to do. And so as you witness these things, as you hear these things, you’re in a position to stay curious, not be the expert, but instead be the conduit for these families and loved ones to start communicating with each other. So you can say you know, what I’m hearing you say is that this really matters to you are so focused on making sure your family’s financial security is in place for the next three generations. And here’s the outline that we’ve worked hard together to establish. And one of the things I know that’s critical to keeping this in place are some of these other conversations and I’m wondering how I can help support you. Perhaps you and I can begin that together today. Just briefly and then we can take steps and how to spread that throughout your family. So again, creating a comfort amongst ourselves as having expertise in navigating these conversations, while empowering our families and the folks that we’re working for as being the expert in the culture of their family and their values, so that we can help facilitate these conversations and ensuring that their values truly are upheld, where their entire life and generations to come.

So you talked about this as being an opportunity and then you identify just now some steps that I had not foreseen that you were gonna go this direction. So I find this curious. I wanted to follow up on the opportunities for us as an advisor to these people to actually have the one on one conversations with them to develop the comfort within them to have these conversations with other members of their family. Because otherwise these would be there would be a lot of things that would be left unsaid. So part of the opportunities for us to be the ones who encourage the family members to have the discussions all amongst themselves. But by starting with us being the questioner and doing it one on one, to develop and help share with them some of those, the vocabulary and the importance of having these discussions Am I on the right track?

You absolutely are now we recognize that not everyone will have the desire or necessarily the comfort in wanting to become experts themselves. So that is certainly what we would advocate for we you know, I will never be fluent in Spanish the way some other people who are truly gifted in learning foreign languages, there are people who can learn, you know, seven different languages. I will be lucky if I remain fluent in one so so we can recognize these skills and not just sort of say, well, you have to do it anyway. But recognizing that there is a skill set, and then when needed, if conversations get more complex or context becomes more complicated to recognize that you can reach out then to those who are fluid to the interpreters if you will, right. So in healthcare, I interact with so many folks who English is not their first language. And if I’m going to have a conversation that says what would you like for lunch today, I probably can figure out how to do that pretty safely and effectively on my own depending on language. But if I’m going to have a conversation that truly has life and death consequences, I’m not going to skim through that and just do the best that I can with the skills that I have knowing my only language, I’m fluent in English. I’m going to turn to an expert in interpretive services for that language and say, help me have this conversation. You help facilitate this. And so that’s what we would encourage people to do is that either there are ways to get yourself trained and practice where you become fluent yourself, which we, as I said, that will always be our first choice and we recognize for some people that’s just not in the cards. And so then we would say then, make sure you know that there are people who are absolutely trained and skilled, who can help facilitate this with you or on behalf of you. And the key is than just training you to recognize where this conversation wants to be had. And do you have the skills and the desire to do it? Or do you know who the experts are that you can turn to who can help you achieve what you’re setting out to do?

So I’ve got to tell you, Don, that resonates well with me as a family enterprise advisor. I could recall many discussions with Judy Cunningham, who was the founder of the FBA program, and she would always talk about the fact that all of us from our different professions that are there to talk and learn to serve families. We all have different levels of you know how deep we want to go on certain subjects and some people are content with just knowing when to call someone in, and others really want to go and become experts in a certain way. So this is just another another topic that we so often avoid, but that there are people who are experts in it and there are ways to learn to develop the expertise yourself. But I want to go back to UCI had sent me in advance some statistics about the fact that that people actually do want to talk about this subject or something about 90% of people want to talk about this and only 27% of the people do. Can you give me a little more background on that? Sure. That was

something statistic that was done, I believe, by the Conversation Project. And this is something that we see almost daily in our own work when we are working with families. We literally will sit in a room and have someone say, Well, I want to talk about it, but they don’t and they’re like well no, I want to talk to what we have found is that people don’t want to talk about this. They simply want to talk about it with somebody else who wants to talk about it. And that’s what we’re doing and that’s why we’re here today is to talk to those of you out there in the wealth management space to say, embrace your fiduciary responsibility and take care of your clients smooth transition of wealth when the time comes. It’s going to help minimize the emotional and financial encumbrance and hopefully leave a legacy not just for them but for you. I was recently at a an event with millennials and talking about death and millennials. And one of the things that really stood out to me was that we’re constantly saying, Oh, the millennials are so different than the baby boomers are the older but what I got out of that is they are craving connection. They are wanting to hear about family stories they want those legacies passed along and they themselves don’t know how to ask because they’ve been put off to the side or your Millennials you don’t understand. So I think that you know, when we have a taboo subject, the best thing we can do is put words around these taboo subjects so that we can start dealing with them.

So we need to learn to talk about these things because even if not, you know, some people might get the impression on this subject. Well this is an old persons topic to learn about because the young people don’t have to worry about it for a while but you’re saying that they actually have more of a desire to learn about these things and and like so many other areas. I think I think the millennials are going to be our Saviors for a lot of things because I the ones that I know have such a refreshing attitude to so many things. You also presented at a con you’re talking about a conference with millennials I know I met you at a conference in Denver for ppi, the purposeful planning Institute and you had a session there called the elephant in the room. And I’ve just wanted to know if you could give us a little background on how you chose that name and what how that was how that went down.

I think it’s similar to what we said earlier this cultural avoidance is pervasive and it’s made worse by as we talked about the changes that are taking place. It is truly the elephant in the room in the last taboo out there. When we look at you know it used to be sacks me. We go on the internet you have all of that being discussed in nauseam. This is truly a topic that still needs to come up to the forefront and within the financial services industry. I really believe there’s a great opportunity for us to do the right thing here to serve those that we serve in a way that will make defining and shaping their legacies. truly a blessing

you know we we do work typically very hard with our clients to make sure that whatever plans they have in place, are truly what they want. But then, somehow some of these undiscussed matters become part of the the things that are left unsaid despite the willingness of everyone to to actually talk about these things. And so you’re saying that we actually have kind of a duty to our clients, to help them with the vocabulary to help them get these discussions started?

Absolutely. I think what we discover is how much we really don’t know. And if we don’t know we don’t even know how to ask. And so by creating permission to start a conversation and to be curious and have an advisor, they said that word is so perfect in this role to really guide us into this conversation. And it’s not just one it will become fertile. It’s ongoing you don’t meet with a client wants to talk about how to set up their future you meet with them. ongoingly because life is dynamic. Life keeps changing. So we need to keep entering into these conversations to see are there new generations have generations changed, or the people that we love, also changing and the values that we have and the things that we want to support in our lives and how our entire planet is changing? It’s so constantly a force that demands our attention. It’s not a one and done. Here’s a form, fill it out, sign it, seal it, give it to your attorney, put it in a folder and never think about it. Again, quite the contrary. We are all about again, creating comfort in engaging in the conversations so that we can keep them alive and keep them growing and evolving with us so they stay relevant. And as Nancy has said, you know, they really, ultimately actually inform what matters most to us as we are very much alive even though it is about the end of our life. What we discussed, when we think about what matters most to us at the end of our life, when things shift and be extremely focused. We actually are talking about what matters most to us our entire lives. It just gets a little more cluttered, when we’re thinking about all of our day to days and to have do’s and shoulds at the end of the life the shoulds melt away. And so we see that as an incredible opportunity to actually have us hyper focus on what we want to be focusing on our entire life.

I think that’s absolutely right. Done. It Steve. The one thing we want to make sure people understand is that what we’re all about is making sure that people understand that when we begin with the end in mind, everything else melts away, and it helps us live more fully today.

Well, that’s that’s nice. Then you said the word normalized. Again, I used it in a different context that we had earlier. To me we’re talking about making this a normal subject. So not just saying, Okay, we’re going to have this uncomfortable discussion one time and then we’re never going to talk about it again. You’re talking about making sure that you keep revisiting subjects and then then they kind of lose the scariness when you talk about them regularly and need to get the clients comfortable and but we need to be comfortable with it ourselves. So you talked about on your in your on your website about different kinds of training that you offer. Can you just talk a little bit about what what people might might learn if they if they signed up and and took this on as as something that they wanted to get into?

Well, when we work within the wealth management space, we talk about, once again, the opportunity of helping our clients define and shape their legacies. We talk about the opportunity of when you get clear on what it is you want. You want to share that with everybody else. You’d never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something we need to build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. What we’re saying is let’s welcome death in order to make the most out of life.

So we do that either by directly training clients helping support families, if you will, one on one. directly from our dialogues team to the family and we also train advisors for those advisors who really wants to own the conversation or at least become much more skilled at recognizing it and helping to facilitate it whether or not they want to take it on themselves. So we have both the will specialist advisor level training how to engage in these conversations, how to facilitate them, what are the nuances to them, for people who are aging for their younger family members, etc. And then we also can do sort of direct to client family if you will support and engagement that way. So that would be sort of the two ways to think about how does become the attendee of service in navigating, comforting. These conversations

so many advisors will hire us first to get themselves in their teams a bit comfortable with it, and if they’re still not quite ready to go full force, then they’ll have us put on a client event where then we engage their clients in this conversation and then we have follow up with their teams. Yeah, communication is important in every any relationship and we need to talk openly and be good listeners and that’s what our training is. really all about. You know, if you think about it, what would be possible in your life if you had absolutely no fear of dying? How might you live with less fear overall, more joy? That’s

great, great questions. I wondered if there are any cultural differences that you’ve noticed around this topic.

So while we can think, from a macroscopic view, if you will, in saying different cultures within a community here in San Francisco, where our headquarters are, we have multiple diverse ethnicities. And we can sit here and say certain cultures have a particular approach to either engaging or avoiding death or have certain cultural rituals around how their families or their communities engage. And the truth is while that may be helpful from a macroscopic level of just how to be prepared and maybe anticipate what might be culturally appropriate for for a family, you may be coming to assist. The reality is on a microscopic level, every single relationship is its own cultural, unique conversation to be learned. So in any family dynamic, in any advisor client dynamic, there are nuances that you would be better served to engage in with a mindset of curiosity as distinct from one of experts is saying I know that because you are x ethnicity, that this is how we should approach this conversation instead, have an understanding of what possibly may show up in this conversation because of someone’s ethnicity. Have that in your back pocket, but still come in trained with a mindset of Teach me. I’m curious and I want to be invested.

That’s great. Curiosity is always a good way to go and asking questions rather than offering our expertise as advisors. It behooves us to actually try to understand where they are and where they’re coming from, and what they want. Absolutely. Our time is running short here. So I wanted to just ask if you have any final tips or takeaways that you want to leave our audience with?

Well, I think first and foremost, if we think about what we care about, if we’re taking the time and energy to engage with an advisor, to help us with our life and with our future, which is really what you are expert at then what we’re also saying is there are many other things that matter to us in life that he valued relationships, whether they are personal with family or with our communities. And it’s an opportunity again for the advisor to be this conduit of let’s go deep and let’s make sure we create a legacy that speaks your values your entire life and for generations to come.

Just like to end by saying we’re here to help people take responsibility, choose their own way and embrace life. If we draw you know, and that’s advisors that we draw from our core values and guidance from the principles of our profession, we’re not going to fail, but more importantly, inaction in acting from our own values and principles. We’re not going to fail the people we serve.

That’s wonderful. And then we don’t have a lot of people in our line of work talking, talk about being wanting to be the most trusted advisor. And I can’t imagine anything more valuable in developing the trust with our clients than being the kind of people that are there to talk to them and listen to them. When talking about such an important subject. Don, Nancy, thank you so much. We’re very we’re very grateful to you know, for you to come on and share with our audience. All of your insights and experience with our membership. People listening if you haven’t subscribed yet to make sure you don’t miss an episode, please subscribe. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you again next time. Thanks for having us.

If you enjoyed today’s episode, you can subscribe to us on iTunes or any other podcast apps. And don’t forget to share this podcast with family friends. And colleagues. If you have feedback on this content or suggestions for future episodes, please email us at f e at family dash enterprise dash x We’d love to hear from


This transcript was generated by