As we enter a new year, many of us, myself included, are hopeful for a better 2021. And in having hope for 2021, we also bear the pain and grief of 2020.
Grief and loss are not new concepts for 2020. However, in 2020, grief and our ability to address, confront, and manage it changed.
Because of COVID-19, we have been denied many of our usual rituals and support systems to address grief. These include in-person funeral or other celebrations of life, gathering in person with friends and family, or meeting in person with a therapist, chaplain, or trusted friend.
We are also facing exacerbated levels of grief. Loss in 2020 includes the loss of life, as well as changes for many of us in physical health or mental health, even if we personally have not experienced COVID-19.
Amy Devine, City University of New York 2006, is an attorney with Haskins, Short, and Brindley, LLC, in Monona, where she practices in the areas of estate planning, Medicaid planning, elder law, and probate.
But it also includes an overwhelming loss or the threat of losing housing, employment, community, and education, along with fear of instability in our communities and government.
Lawyers and Grief
As lawyers, we are often not trained to treat grief and we are not qualified to do so.1 However, failing to recognize, acknowledge, and address grief can affect the client-lawyer relationship.
Grief can affect one’s ability to follow through with tasks, return phone calls, complete paperwork, and show up to appointments or court dates.
Grief can affect concentration, memory, ability to process complex information, and organizational skills.
Here are some basic tips to help you recognize and acknowledge grief:2
Be present, upfront, and acknowledge the loss. It is often easier to quickly move past topics that might bring about uncomfortable or emotional reactions. But acknowledging the loss and allowing for space to recognize the loss can go a long way in forming and maintaining a lawyer-client relationship.
Understand your role as attorney. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, each person’s pain and situation is unique. What may have helped you may not work for your client. Focus on the client’s needs and situation.
Make and share community connections. This can be crucial for helping your client find other resources in the community when needed and ensure that you are maintaining your role as attorney, not as the person who can fix it all.
Adapt your style and requests to the client, especially in times of grieving. Often times we can provide clients with flexibility in terms of how they can receive and process information and also what kind of timelines they must follow in making decisions. Would it be helpful if the client has several days or even weeks to make a final decision in order to process the information? Would it be helpful to receive information in writing?
Finding Help with Grief
And, finally, grief and loss are not limited to our clients and their experiences. If you need assistance, the State Bar of Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) is here to help. You can call their 24-hour helpline at (800) 543-2625. WisLAP’s webpage on WisBar.org also offers a number of resources.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 For further reading on grief and legal training, see D. R. Cover, “Good Grief,” Clinical L. Rev.22 (2015), p. 55.
2 Tips adapted from Responding to the Grieving Client, American Hospice Foundation.