It is early December and Jane is working at her usual breakneck pace. With long days at the office, missed family dinners and no time to look up from her work, Jane rises to the challenge. Then she receives unexpected news. Her 40-something husband has an annual checkup that triggers an ugly surprise. His unexplained tiredness turns out to be the side effects of stage four colon cancer. Everything changes in a moment.
In the legal profession, we believe we are masters of control. We lawyers, staff and coaches have systems and processes to support us and practice management habits to stay focused and highly productive. Our emotions are kept in check and our fears are hidden away. But when something utterly out of control enters the picture, most of us are unprepared; suddenly, those carefully developed supports are not enough to hold us up.
Grief can crack you wide open and rip you out of your day-to-day reality. This natural human experience causes intense emotions to well up from deep within the body. Grief expresses itself in unexpected moments and places — in the grocery store as you walk past the coffee display or as you drive up to your house. It is just as likely to hide when you want it to show up, like on the weekend retreat you planned for letting emotions flow.
We rely on controlling much about our lives and environment. Experiencing something as intensely painful, personal and emotionally chaotic as grief can leave us feeling overwhelmed and disoriented.
I want to offer a short and simple guide to the unchartered territory we will all arrive at one day — grief.
What you are experiencing is normal
It is important to know that having out-of-control emotions is natural. For a time, you might feel nothing . . . or everything. Whatever you experience, however unexpected, please know it is normal.
Hit ‘pause’ and reach out for help
Your impulse will likely be to thrash around, to do something, anything, but you won’t be thinking clearly.
Intense emotions stimulate an unavoidable physiological response that impairs the neocortex, the area of the brain where conscious thought occurs. At this stage, it is important to stop “doing” and seek support from someone who has the skills, tools and experience to help.
A counsellor, coach or Lawyers Assistance Program adviser can help you stop, get grounded and gather yourself. They also have the experience and expertise to point you to valuable resources that many people may not be aware of.
Be with people who know how to hold space
It is important to have people around you when you are grieving, not to distract you but to hold a safe space for you to mourn. It can be hard to reach out, but please know the support of understanding people will help you cope better.
As someone helping a grieving friend, the most important thing you can do is listen. Listen without trying to solve anything, without providing advice. Listen without offering platitudes.
Well-meaning words such as “it gets better” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” are offensive statements to someone truly suffering sorrow.
Let the emotions flow through
You will also need time alone to retreat in your own private place. Treat yourself to things that bring you comfort. Wrap yourself in a blanket or soak in the tub.
Allow yourself to experience your emotions. You may not feel them right away or when you have carved out a time “to heal.” But grief needs to be experienced. The best thing you can do is follow where the emotions take you. Don’t fight them. In driving school, we are told to turn the wheels in the direction of the skid when the car starts to slide out of control. The same is true for grief.
Avail yourself of practical support
In the midst of the crisis, you might need help to keep your legal practice running. Intense grieving can have temporary implications for your professional competence. Strong emotions can impair your reasoning — and you will not be aware of this in the moment.
If you are a sole practitioner without the support of a larger firm of colleagues, there are lawyers available who act as locums to temporarily take care of your practice. There are also legal or other professional volunteers who can handle immediate and specific tasks for you such as getting court adjournments or dealing with administrative matters. Your local LAP can help you connect with these resources.
Do not go it alone
As someone used to being in control, you might believe you won’t need help in a time of emotional crisis. Lawyers are valued for their minds, and grief can be perceived as a threat to one’s professional stature. It is an established truth that lawyers are most likely to isolate themselves and suffer in silence. This would be a professional mistake and a personal one, too.
You owe your clients a duty of competence. To ensure that duty is met, reach out and get help. Access the supports that will help you keep the practice running. On the personal side, instead of worrying if counselling will help, consider it a valuable gift you can give yourself.
Thanks to Derek LaCroix, the executive director of the Lawyers Assistance Program in British Columbia. In the course of his long term of service with LAP, LaCroix has helped many lawyers through this rite of passage. He generously shared his experience with me for this article.
Allison Wolf is lawyer coach with Shift Works Strategic, shiftworks.c, and founder of the blog lawyerwithalife.com. Drawing on 20 years as a legal marketing professional and 13 years as a certified executive coach, she helps lawyers build successful and fulfilling legal practices. Her mission is “to help make law a career lawyers recommend to their children.”