Dealing with a Death or Serious Illness

Lawrence J. Altman
People who learn how to be resilient are able to more quickly recover from a stressful incident than those who have not.

People who learn how to be resilient are able to more quickly recover from a stressful incident than those who have not.

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Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact your state or local LAP.

Several years ago, one of my best friends died by suicide. A few months later, my sister died from cancer. So within two months, two people close to me died. Because of that trauma, I started to exhibit signs of a deep depression. Yet, thanks to the support I received from family and friends, I was able to overcome the negative impact of the trauma and move on with success. What did I do to recover and move on despite the losses?

As part of the recovery process, I became resilient. Indeed, resiliency has been discussed by some mental health care providers as a skill that can be learned and used by individuals to assist them with navigating difficult times. A 2015 Time magazine article discussed the theory of resilience, stating that scientists had concluded that the ability to handle stress may reduce the onset of depression, heart disease, and possibly Alzheimer’s. As the author wrote, “Scientists now know why some people rebound so well from setbacks.” (“Bounce Back” Time, June 1, 2015, by Mandy Oaklander.) Accordingly, people who learn how to be resilient are able to more quickly recover from a stressful incident than those who have not.

Dr. Dennis Charney, dean of the Icahn School of Medicine, and Dr. Steven Southwick were two of the primary Time article sources. They offered the following “Tips for Resilience”:

  • Develop a core set of beliefs that nothing can shake. 
  • Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or traumatic thing has happened. 
  • Try to maintain a positive outlook. 
  • Take cues from someone who is especially resilient. 
  • Don’t run from things that scare you: Face them. 
  • Be quick to reach out for support when things go haywire. 
  • Learn new things as often as you can. 
  • Find an exercise regimen you’ll stick to. 
  • Don’t beat yourself up or dwell on the past. 
  • Recognize what makes you uniquely strong and own up to it.

After reading this article, I realized that I had adopted all 10 of these suggestions. This helped me bounce back from my losses after a reasonable period of time and move on with a happy and healthy outlook.

The first thing I did was to reach out to others for help. Lawyers often have a hard time doing this because they are helpers, not seekers of help. In addition, people who have mental health issues, or believe that they do, are afraid of the stigma and bias society has created about those who have mental health issues. The legal profession, however, thanks to Lawyer Assistance Programs around the country, has made inroads in convincing attorneys that there is no shame in seeking help for mental illnesses. Indeed, mental illness is just that: An illness that requires competent medical help. So, I contacted the Missouri Lawyers Assistance Program (MOLAP) and a therapist and got the help I needed.

The therapist and members of MOLAP helped me understand that I was not alone and that grief was normal. I also started to do a better job of taking care of my physical needs by exercising and eating a healthier diet. In addition, I became an active member of MOLAP and started to write and publish articles related to my school law practice. By starting to help others as an active MOLAP member and through the research I needed to do before I published my articles, I was learning new things and maintaining a positive outlook. I realized that even before I read the Time article, I had already adopted most of the tips for resilience.

The help I received from MOLAP was a major part of my ability to learn how to be resilient, and the help provided by MOLAP is an example how the state organizations that are part of the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) team are always there to help attorneys in crisis. Because of these affirmative steps, I was able to appropriately grieve for the deaths of my loved ones and successfully move forward.

You can connect with ABA CoLAP on Twitter or Facebook (@ABACoLAP).

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Lawrence J. Altman

Lawrence J. Altman is a consultant and adjunct professor at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri.