How to Experience Loss

I was in the courthouse the other day waiting for justice and the door of the courtroom opened. As quickly as the door opened, the noise of the court room fell into the hall.  A woman appeared, crying.  She looked at her lawyer and said, “I always thought I would get the house.” He did not answer.  As her appearance witnessed, she did not get the house. She was still crying as she walked down the hall. Her lawyer said nothing as he trailed her down the long and empty hall. And, as I watched they cleared the elevator. Silence.

It made me think once again … law school teaches us everything about the law and nothing about how to practice it.  It definitely doesn’t teach us to face the human side of the law.  Often times we confront loss, grief and individual trauma.  These are all individual human experiences, but as lawyers we are also experiencing these events with the client.

As a probate lawyer of over eighteen years, I have been taught about the Texas Estates Code, civil procedure, how to act in court, how to prepare tax returns, … etc., but not how to experience human grief as a professional.  Yet, as an estate planning, probate or guardianship attorney we are surrounded by loss, trauma and grief daily – the loss of a spouse, parent, sibling, child or close friend. The other day, I asked one of my colleagues who was an older lawyer how he was doing and he responded “dealing with the loss of many friends.”  Professionally and personally, the feigned response that most of us can offer is merely  – “Sorry for your loss.”

Recently, I was listening to David Brooks, The Road to Depth, Thinking About what Character Is, Aspen Ideas to Go, April 27, 2015.  Now, I have always been a fan of Brooks, but the first few minutes of the podcast were amazing -a rare gift of true life skills. How do you address someone in a state of grief or trauma?  How do you act?  Frequently lawyers think they have to have something to say, or a way to act.  Truthfully, most lawyers don’t know how to act.

I am reminded of the first hour after my mother died; we were in her hospital room, and the hospital Chaplain appeared. Personally, it was a moment when all time in my life just stopped.  The Chaplain looked at my father, brother and I and noted “She had never experienced grief like that.”  Then as quickly as she had appeared, she left.  True, we were a mess, but it was obvious, she didn’t know how to experience grief.

The life skills that Brooks presents should be taught to every law student, in fact every medical student … every person.  I’ll summarize Brook’s points below. Forgive me David, if it’s not exact. So, how do you address someone experiencing a loss, trauma or grief?

  • Just bring it up in conversation and if I want to talk about it, I’ll talk about it and if not I’ll let it pass. The loss is always on their mind.  Mention it.
  • Just show up –come like the milkman bringing Milk, not the Calvary trying to save the day, just show up, be there, sit alongside and keep company;
  • Don’t compare one trauma to another, never compare, – don’t turn the other person’s trauma into a story about your-self;
  • Be practical, make sure the things you offer are not supply driven, make sure its demand driven, offer what the individual needs, not the meal that you cook best;
  • Don’t offer false counsel or false hope, don’t say “you will get over it,” don’t rationalize it, don’t say it’s all for the best, don’t try to make sense of what has happened, don’t try to impose any view upon it; and
  • Don’t try to take over, practice a passive activism, don’t try to fix the problem, solve the problem, explain the problem, allow the sufferer the dignity of their own process.

It’s a manner of presence, or just being there.  It’s really about the art of presence.

See David Brooks, The Road to Depth, Thinking About what Character Is, Aspen Ideas to Go, Podcast, April 27, 2015.

It’s really hard to add to what David has already said.