Survivorship Guilt is the experience of emotional distress that can result after having survived a traumatic event when others did not. These feelings can have an adverse effect on behavior, such as reduced motivation and irritability, and when left untreated, can manifest in much more serious and harmful behaviors, including suicide. Given the trauma and tragedy that people have experienced because of COVID-19 around the world, Survivorship Guilt is unsurprisingly on the rise.
The nature of the K-shaped recovery from the pandemic (i.e., how certain parts of the economy have started to recover when others have not, or continue to get even worse) has faced financial advisors with clients who may be experiencing their own form of financial Survivorship Guilt, where they may be financially ‘okay’ (or possibly even better off than they were before the pandemic), but who feel ashamed or guilty for being okay as they witness (and empathize with) others suffering extreme hardship. These feelings of discomfort may cause their clients to do things with their money they would not normally do, and that may not be in alignment with their overall financial goals. For instance, clients with financial Survivorship Guilt may feel uncomfortable about the idea of enjoying or spending money, which manifests in unusual spending habits or even emerges as suddenly-drastic charitable giving. Thus, advisors will want to be on the lookout for signs of financial Survivorship Guilt in clients as COVID-19 continues to take its toll.
Given the financial advisors’ position in their client’s lives, they may be the first people to see or recognize these issues arising. Clients may indicate that they’re feeling guilty, ashamed, or disgusted because of their wealth, or they may lament the dramatic disparity that exists between the wealthy and the poor. Fortunately, though, for advisors who suspect that clients may be experiencing financial Survivorship Guilt, there are some things they can do to help.
First, advisors can highlight the benefit of and normalize the grieving process for clients with unresolved grief. While the pandemic has interfered with the traditional ways many of us normally grieve, grieving is still an essential part of healing, and failing to bring closure to the process can cause individuals to reconcile unresolved feelings by shifting their emotions to guilt and shame. Second, advisors who have clients that are philanthropically inclined and who want to use giving as a way to process grief can ensure that they give responsibly and in ways that have personal meaning for them. Third, advisors can encourage clients to group together (virtually if need be) for social support, perhaps through a giving drive where they can share stories of their grief, talk about their giving goals, or maybe to listen to a speaker on a topic of interest (e.g., Survivorship Guilt, philanthropy, etc.). Ultimately, the key point is that advisors have tools to help clients who may be suffering from financial Survivorship Guilt cope in healthy ways. By watching for signs of shame and guilt, advisors can recognize when their clients may need support, whether from the advisor directly or where appropriate via a mental health professional. Importantly, advisors must also recognize the critical importance to take good care of themselves too, both physically and emotionally, during these difficult times, which can only help them to serve their clients even better!