GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2004
Recently I have been counseling a solo attorney whose wife was killed in a car accident. He was devastated. He found himself worrying (with an enormous amount of guilt) about his practice as much as he worried about his three kids and what they would do to go on. At 37 years old, he hadn’t anticipated this. He was just beginning to feel good about his switch to a solo practice two years before. He was making it. Now it seemed impossible to handle both his family and the expectations, deadlines, and details of work.
What does an attorney in a solo or small practice do when a death occurs in his or her family, whether anticipated over time or sudden and unexpected? How does one face the death of a key employee, colleague, or client?
The practice of law offers no preparation for the deep and sometimes debilitating feelings of grief. The need to be strong, in complete control of your emotions, and “on top of your game” at all times interferes with the healthy resolution and integration of a significant loss. In a solo or small practice these issues are often compounded by the lack of support, time, and resources to deal with the grief while maintaining a practice. There is often no one to talk or turn to. The stress may be overwhelming and can negatively impact the quality of your work, life, and relationships.
The grief caused by a death becomes much more than a “bump in the road.” Rather, it is a land mine exploding, often when you least expect it and are least able to cope with it, wreaking emotional, physical, cognitive, and spiritual havoc with the stability of your practice, your family, and your life. It is important to understand that unresolved grief can lead to other unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictive behaviors. Drinking, drug abuse, gambling, infidelity, and eating and sleeping disorders only mask the underlying unresolved pain of a significant loss and prevent the investment of time and effort necessary to work through the grief.
To be alive and to be human is to face the inevitability of loss and grief. Nevertheless, many attorneys are ill prepared for that inevitability, even while they meticulously help their clients put everything in order for the contingency of death. They suggest and draft the requisite wills, durable powers of attorney, and powers of attorney for health care. They insist upon “key man” insurance plans and negotiate buy/sell contracts that have a consciousness of death built into them. But preparing for such contingencies in their own lives is often something they simply put off.
What do you need to know about loss and grief to help prepare yourself? What strategies can be useful to a solo or small firm practitioner?
The first step is understanding grief. Grief is a normal, healthy, and appropriate response to loss or change in our lives. It is a process of healing or reconciling, a process that, if successful, leads us through various phases of recovery to a restored sense of wholeness and equilibrium. Usually the process of grief takes much longer than one expects. Significant losses must be dealt with and cannot be repressed over long periods of time.
Grief usually involves the physical loss of someone or something of value. But for every physical loss, myriad symbolic losses and secondary losses occur that must also be grieved. Each new loss may cause prior losses to resurface as well. Everyone grieves in a unique and idiosyncratic way. There is no right way to grieve, no predetermined course, no set timetable for healing. Nonetheless, there are some commonalities in the process.
How Can We Help Ourselves Through Grief?
1. Talk to someone you trust.
2. Look ahead to the contingencies of significant loss happening in your life.
3. Know your own best way to relieve stress and express feelings.
4. Be watchful for anger and find appropriate ways of expressing it.
5. Make time to keep yourself healthy:
Initially, people often experience a period of shock and denial after the death of a significant person in their lives. Feelings of numbness and disbelief can last for hours, days, or weeks. When the shock begins to wear off, people often enter into an acute time of suffering and disorganization—usually the most difficult phase of grief. During this period, people often experience deep sadness, longing, bewilderment, anger, confusion, and emptiness. There are often physical and cognitive symptoms, including eating and sleeping difficulties, exhaustion, and some lapses in memory and concentration. When the intensity of these feelings begins to diminish, the person may experience a sense of reorganization and in-tegration of the loss. This is a time of adjusting to the loss, accepting the reality of the death, and finding new meaning in a life that is significantly altered.
Preparing Yourself for Grief
With these considerations in mind, what can you do to prepare yourself and your practice for grief-related experiences?
First, whether it seems realistic or not, you simply must have an attorney or cooperative pool of attorneys to back you up in case of emergencies. This backup support must be flexible enough to come in on short notice and be available for some extended time. In a small practice this might mean, where possible, sharing information about cases and the progress of work for clients. This will ensure that your backup support can be brought up to speed quickly.
Also, be very conscious about how you personally respond to loss—your own loss and that of others around you. What is your comfort level in talking with others who have experienced a significant loss? What do you do with feelings of loss in your life? Are you able to talk to others about these feelings? Do you keep everything bottled up? Locked down?
Third, think about whom you might talk to in a crisis—a trusted friend or confidant. If you are not comfortable speaking with these individuals, perhaps the crisis line of your state bar association could be a resource where no questions are asked, no names are needed. If you are unable to talk to people about your emotions, find what works for you—exercise, meditation, travel, reading. Whatever the method, finding appropriate outlets for legitimate feelings rather than allowing them to build up is vital and helps you maintain more control over your emotions when needed.
Lastly, you might try to remember that grieving the loss of a loved one is not a sign of weakness. In the practice of law, one attempts not to show sadness or any other emotion for fear of appearing weak. Yet, ironically, being able to experience the whole range of deeply felt emotions that come with loss and being able to express these feelings appropriately takes great courage and strength. Realizing this may give us permission to grieve, and it might just make us better practitioners of law.
Judith F. Koeppl is the co-founder and clinical director of the Center for Life and Loss Integration in Madison, Wisconsin. She is a certified independent clinical social worker, therapist, and specialist in grief, bereavement, and life change issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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