Where Responsibility, Compassion Meet: Working With Bereaved Clients


A client whose wife was killed told me:

"At first, some people tried to be helpful but then it seemed like no one wanted to listen or talk about my wife anymore. Maybe they don't speak of her because they don't want to see me sad; maybe they just don't want to upset me. I wanted to talk about her but it seemed to make others uncomfortable. So I began to control it and wouldn't talk about her, so maybe people think I am doing well. But I am not doing well. I need to talk about my wife and remember her. How can I just forget her?"

Another client, whose son was killed by a drunken driver, said:

"People treat me differently. It's almost like my forehead was branded 'mother whose child was killed.' Friends, co-workers and neighbors avoid me if they can or if we are together pretend like nothing happened. If they would only look me in the eyes and ask how I am doing or say [son's] name it would be a little easier. I know I have changed but the way people treat me makes it worse. I feel very much alone."

Those who are bereaved often feel like they are treated differently, shunned, isolated or betrayed. Feelings of anger and disappointment with family, friends and co-workers for perceived failings in providing support after a death occurs are also common. It is unfortunate that many in their support network are unable to provide the type of support necessary to facilitate the process of adaptation to loss. Studies show that the bereaved's perception of the quality of support received is a strong determinant as to how well the bereaved will adapt to the loss.

Can we, as trial lawyers representing victims and their families, become part of the bereaved's support network? That is dependent in large part upon how we respond to our clients and their grief.

In the first case, the client whose wife was killed by a distracted driver first reached out to me, and as I discovered, several other personal injury law firms by e-mail seeking information and possible representation. His e-mail was so raw, so filled with pain, emptiness and anguish over the loss of his wife. When his wife was struck he was holding her hand; he learned of his wife's death as he was lying on the roadway with badly broken legs. Much of his torment was "survivor's guilt," wanting to have died instead of her.

I responded to his e-mail only by offering my condolences and saying when he was ready to talk about his loss I would be ready to listen; as a result, he retained me to represent him. He was not interested in how quickly I could meet with him, or in hearing about prior seven-figure results, but in knowing that his attorney would respectfully guide him through the process and be willing to understand what he was going through. I'd like to think that is what he really wanted and needed — a lawyer who would listen to him and would try to understand his loss.

For the mother whose son was killed by a drunken driver, her world was shattered and those in her support network did not know what to do or say. They could not comprehend the magnitude of her loss. She needed desperately to tell the story of how her son died and to somehow feel that even with such a short life he would be remembered. Telling that story was necessary for her to slowly try to adapt to the loss and move through the mourning process, but she could not find the support she needed.

Can we, as attorneys who represent clients in death cases not only provide sound legal counsel, but also sound emotional support? Do we wish to do so?

For 30 years, I have represented families of those who have lost loved ones. While I think that my job as an attorney is to understand a client's suffering in order to fully develop damages, my responsibility as a compassionate human being is to offer comfort if I can. Over the years I struggled with deciding what to say or do to lessen another's suffering and it was not until my daughter, Casey, died in 2009 that I began to appreciate just how awkward and uncomfortable many are with death. I experienced helpful support, but also support that was not helpful and no support from those whom I would have expected would offer support.

As a result of my personal experience of loss and participation in grief support groups; my pursuit of a master's degree in counseling and providing grief counseling to the bereaved through a local hospice; speaking with hundreds of people who are in mourning; and a review of research concerning how best to help those in mourning, it has become clear what helps and what does not help those in mourning. Whether we are representing clients or just as members of our communities, having an understanding of how to better offer comfort to those in mourning is a skill that can and should be improved — and within our professional scope, we can assist as part of an overall, holistic healing process for our clients. I offer the following observations and suggestions for providing comfort to those in mourning:

  • "I did not want to intrude on your grief." Many of us who mourn hear this from those trying, rather awkwardly, to explain why they did not reach out sooner. Whether their inaction was the result of a conscious decision that offering support would be intrusive, or not knowing what to do or not caring, from the perspective of those who have lost a loved one, it seems as though nothing was done. I have not met or spoken to anyone who was mourning who complained about people reaching out to offer condolences and "intruding upon their grief." We who mourn feel differently as a result of our loss. Failing to offer support only compounds the loss.

  • "I did not want to remind them of their loss." Many are reluctant to ask how the mourner is doing or to mention the deceased's name for fear of reminding the mourner of his or her loved one and ruining his or her day. Some mourners, in reaction to the discomfort of others, intentionally repress their critical need to speak about their loss. Thus a destructive cycle of silence is perpetuated. Those who mourn fear that a loved one will be forgotten and, from personal experience, we think of them regardless of whether others ask about our loss. To hear our loved one's name or to be asked to tell about our loved one is what we desperately want and need. We may become emotional when speaking, but that emotion is a healthy reaction to another's interest, which is a special gift.

  • "I do not know what to say or do to lessen someone's grief." While some may legitimately feel this way, it suggests that they are looking at another person's grief as something that needs to be "fixed." Grief cannot be fixed by any words or gestures, no matter how heartfelt. Contemplating offering support to someone who is mourning from this perspective will not be productive.
Successful adaptation to loss is a process and takes time. What needs to be done is simply to be present and listen. Listening in a manner that lets others know that we care, that we want to hear what they say, and that we are trying to understand what this must be like from their perspective is about the best that can be offered. Very often those who attempt to offer comfort will not be required to say much at all if they convey that they care and are willing to respectfully listen. Those who grieve have a story of loss and pain and need to tell that story, often over and over, to feel someone is trying to understand.

  • Giving unsolicited advice or repeating platitudes. No one wants to be the recipient of unsolicited advice. That is particularly true for those in mourning. They need to be given respect and the right to resolve grief in a manner in which they see fit. Advising those in mourning to get on with their lives, stop visiting the cemetery so frequently or to give away the deceased's clothes is not respectful. Even suggesting that someone is doing well as he or she progresses through the mourning process could cause the bereaved to question whether he or she is grieving enough for his or her loved one. "Be strong," "time heals all wounds" and "he or she is in a better place" can be interpreted as criticism of the manner or length of one's mourning. Unless one is absolutely certain of a mourner's religious beliefs, be very careful about saying or sending cards with overtly religious messages. They can anger and be seen as disapproving of the manner or extent of one's grief.

  • What can one say? These simple statements are appreciated by those who mourn because they are nonjudgmental, do not constitute advice-giving and allow the mourner to mourn as she or he sees fit: I was thinking of you and your family; I can't imagine what you are going through; I don't know what to say but I am here for you; whenever you are ready I want to listen to try to understand; I can't think of anything that I can do but I am and will be here for you if you want to talk.

  • Anniversaries, holidays and other special occasions. Those in mourning will have strong emotions on those special occasions, and their grief may be stronger at those times. Sending a card on the anniversary of the death, on the deceased's birthday or around the holidays acknowledging that you are thinking about them at that time will let them know they are not alone and will be greatly appreciated.

Reaching out to someone who has suffered a loss and listening respectfully not only helps the bereaved but also helps the supporter. While it may be demanding to support those who are grieving, many who do so feel that the experience was rewarding and instructive. Some feel that by learning about death and bereavement they developed a greater appreciation for their own life, restructured their priorities and placed more value on relationships.

The relationship between the lawyer and client is rooted in mutual trust and understanding. We strive to convey the emotions, experiences and deepest thoughts of our clients to judges and juries who may not have a personal context within which to understand our client's unique suffering. To have conveyed to our client that we are willing to listen to his or her suffering and to have been privileged to have our client share experiences with us, joins us in a special journey that can be intensely satisfying for both the client and the attorney.

Reprinted with permission from the March 21, 2012 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2012 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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