Overcoming Loss: How to Work With Grieving Clients

Buyers and sellers are often in the midst of a sorrowful life transition. Know the five stages of grief, and you'll better serve their needs.

January 1, 2007

It’s not an uplifting thought, but it’s a fact of working in the real estate business: Many of your clients will be in the midst of a sorrowful life transition. Maybe they’re leaving the home where decades of family memories were created, splitting up after an ended relationship, or selling because they no longer have the financial means to pay the mortgage.

Because you’ll inevitably work with a grieving client at some point in your career, it’s important that you understand the five stages of grief, as identified by American psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. By knowing what your clients are going through, you can better understand what is motivating their decisions and help them keep the deal on track. The five stages occur in this order:

Stage 1: Denial

Home owners experiencing denial may simply refuse to sell, even if they’re living a home that’s too large to maintain or too expensive to afford. They don’t want to believe that they will have to move. The reality simply hasn’t sunk in.

Stage 2: Anger

This is a very emotional stage at which grieving sellers often hire a real estate practitioner. The two parties of a divorcing couple may blame one another for the loss or make decisions purely to hurt the other person. Your goal is to keep the clients focused on the future and help them stay positive. You should never appear to be taking sides.

Stage 3: Bargaining

In this stage, clients may try to work out an alternative approach to avoid buying or selling. This can hurt them in the long run if they decline good offers on their home or delay making an offer on a new home. If you notice that your client is in a bargaining stage, help them understand the impact of their decisions and focus on their original goal.

Stage 4: Depression

Reality sets in. Clients have given up hope for reconciling, or realized they’ll really have to leave the home where they raised their kids. Those who refused to accept their unsettling financial picture now understand the ramifications. Clients may seem tired, downtrodden, or just plain sad.

Stage 5: Acceptance

Once clients arrive at this stage, they’re much easier to work with. They are focused on the future and are ready to move on.

Ideas for Easing the Move

You’re job isn’t necessarily to console your client, but there are things you can do to help the transaction progress smoothly. The best practitioners are one part negotiator, one part marketer, one part salesperson, and one part life coach.

First, realize that the grieving process will be different for everyone — empty nesters, widows, divorcees, etc. Clients may be grieving the loss of a personal relationship, the loss of their home, or both. Let them know you’re aware that they’re going through a rough time in their lives, and that you’ll try to make the purchase or sale of their home as painless as possible.

To help grieving clients with a difficult move, here are some ideas:

  • Accentuate the positive. If clients are submerged in the sadness of moving, help them refocus by asking positive questions about their new home. What colors will they paint the walls? Will they plant a garden? Will they create a special room or nook for their favorite hobby? Will they be close to a great park or cute coffee shop?
  • Create a home scrapbook. For clients who are leaving the family homestead, help them take memories with them. Work with them to create a scrapbook with photos of each room and a list of fond memories from each location.
  • Plan a going away/welcome home party. Help clients say goodbye to their old home with a going away party, or get comfortable in their new digs with a welcome party. If you have a knack for party-planning, you can help with invitations or even “sponsor” the food or beverages. It’s a great way to meet potential clients, too.
  • Offer moving resources. Compile a list of reputable companies in your area that can help your clients pack up, move out, and settle into their new place.

Most importantly, be sensitive to your clients yet diligent about moving the transaction forward. It may be a difficult balancing act, but your clients will thank you for it. After all, when emotions are running high, deals can fall apart.

As with any transaction, set out a timeline so clients know what to expect and can mentally prepare for decision-making. Anticipate problems, keep communication lines open, and let them know you’ll be there to help every step of the way.

Kelle Sparta is the author ofThe Consultative Real Estate Agent: Building Relationships that Create Loyal Clients, Get More Referrals, and Increase Your Sales(AMACOM, 2005). She is also the founder of Sparta Success Systems , a real estate training company.