Responding to the Grieving Client

By Nicholas McConnell, Esq, Naomi Naierman, and Johanna Turner


The classic American law school curriculum is neither intended nor designed to prepare lawyers for one of the significant challenges likely to be faced repeatedly over a lifetime of active practice: responding to clients who both need legal advice and are grief-stricken. This challenge is not limited to trust and estate lawyers whose work with the bereaved is a foreseeable, oft-repeated part of their practice. All lawyers will come into contact with grieving people at some time, in some way.

Grief comes to people in many forms and under a variety of circumstances, often combining in ways that naturally lead to the need for legal counsel. True, the client may be the surviving spouse of a recently deceased, much loved, long-time marital partner. But no less important is the role of the personal injury lawyer in recognizing and dealing with grief over other losses: parents of a badly injured, totally disabled child; or the employment law attorney whose client has lost a personality-defining job to illegal discriminatory treatment; or the domestic relations lawyer whose client is in grief over the loss of a long-term relationship. Nor is grief a stranger to the executive suites of major corporations whose officers consult regularly with counsel in mega law firms.

Yet lawyers are not trained to recognize the often paralyzing symptoms of grief, much less to respond effectively when they do. Perhaps just as significantly, many lawyers are probably ill-equipped to recognize and deal effectively with their own grief, or that of their colleagues, even when significant legal matters entrusted to them can be put at risk. Judgment, decisiveness, energy, competency and ability to act can be impaired or temporarily destroyed by grief. It is safe to assume, however, that the majority of lawyers would have difficulty admitting — to themselves, to their colleagues, and perhaps most especially, to their clients — that they have lost the ability to function effectively because of their own grief over the loss of a loved one, whether through death, divorce, separation, illness, or injury.

Images of control, mastery and winning predominate in our legal culture. Vulnerability, neediness and dependency are definite taboos. But grief can disable a lawyer from functioning effectively and ethically just as surely as alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, mental illness, or aging. Lawyers are trained to be valiant gladiators — to win cases, to rescue clients, and to be fully in charge. Yet, lawyers have a duty to their clients, to their law firms, and to themselves to know how to recognize and respond appropriately whenever grief enters into their professional lives.

Recognizing and Responding to the Grieving Client

When you encounter a grieving client in your practice, a deeper understanding of grief can be invaluable. When grief is left unresolved, it can shatter an individual’s self-worth, interfere with cognitive function, and leave the person emotionally unwilling or unable to act in his/her own best interests. Grief may even precipitate clinical depression, violence or serious physical illness. Grief has the power to make the strongest person helpless. Given this potential impact, it is not surprising that the bereaved client may be unable to tend to business and legal decisions, including the dispensation of wills and trusts. The challenge for you, the witness to another person’s grief, is to offer honest encouragement and patient, sensitive support. These responses can help channel grief’s power toward wholeness. You may be responsible for some aspect of the individual’s well-being, and the burden and complexity of the relationship may seem hard to bear. Remember that none of us has the answers and none of us can alleviate the pain, but we can contribute our understanding, practical assistance and respect. Although it is easy to become caught up in the emotions of grief, your value to your client will be strengthened if you can find the right balance.

Recognizing and Responding to the Grieving Client

  • Take stock of your own grief. Your first responsibility is to understand your own grief history and reactions. Every loss encountered may trigger feelings of your own. If you have unfinished grief business, keep it separate from the support you now offer. The occasion can serve as a reminder to be mindful of your own grief reactions.
  • Acknowledge the loss and name the name. You may shy away from speaking first of the loss. Yet by acknowledging it before you say anything else, you make clear that there is nothing more important. Use the specific name; it is comforting to the mourner to hear the name live on, “I was very sad to hear of Bill’s death,” or, “I’m so sorry about Jeanne’s death.”
  • In early conversations, do a “memory check.” Memories are the griever’s constant companions, but at times they may be difficult to bear. Because of their power, memories can elicit loving comfort or stabbing pain. You might try phrases like, “I know you have some fine memories of Ruth,” and wait for what follows. If remembrances flow, add your own stories that illustrate positive qualities of the person who died.
  • Honor the deceased in a meaningful way. Close friends and family members will have their own types of memorials, but a charitable donation is a welcome expression from any friend or acquaintance. Note the family’s designated charity, and if you aren’t aware of a preference, try to choose a charity that indicates: “I remember what was important to Don.”
  • Use the power of touch. The mourner’s need for physical contact is powerful, as is the message this contact conveys. If appropriate for the situation and/or person, a gentle hand on the shoulder, or light touch on the hand can often express what words cannot.
  • Be comfortable with tears. Expect tears. You may offer a tissue, but stay put when tears flow. If possible, don’t let your body language communicate your discomfort. If you are tearful yourself, you are giving the gift of honest soul-to-soul connection. It is always appreciated and never inappropriate to be sincerely moved, no matter what the relationship.
  • Acknowledge personal experiences. By briefly referring to your own losses, you communicate that you are emotionally available and understand the power of grief. But remember that this is not about you, it is your client’s experience that is important at this moment. Do not assure grieving individuals that you know just how they feel. Since histories and relationships are unique, you don’t really know.
  • You don’t have all the answers. As compassionate or resourceful as you may be, you are only one participant in the grief journey. And although many of these suggestions are part of therapeutic technique, you are not a therapist. You may have a personal need to make everything better, or the bereaved may want to transfer to your shoulders the role of the person who died. Neither inclination is healthy or practical. You may need to clarify — for both of you — what your role should be.
  • Allow a reasonable amount of time for making decisions. Big decisions are best delayed until the newly bereaved are well on their way to acceptance. Yet there are always some choices that must be made. Describe the tasks and timelines well in advance, and work to create a calm environment, e.g., “We need to submit an inventory of the estate by May 15. We can contact the broker in March, but let’s talk about who can help you go through the household items in April to assess their value.”
  • Know the danger signs. The power of grief can seem jarring, so it’s natural to wonder when professional help may be important. It is wise to intervene if you observe:
    • signs of drug or alcohol dependency,
    • deepening of extreme, exaggerated emotions,
    • prolonged isolation,
    • physical or cognitive changes,
    • preoccupation with death, or, verbalization of suicidal thoughts.
  • Identify resources and use them. In addition to traditional local resources, such as religious advisors and licensed professionals (including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and nurse practitioners) the hospices in your community will be staffed with trained grief counselors who can identify even more resources in your area. Most hospices offer grief education and bereavement care as a community service. If you can’t locate a program in your area, call the National Hospice Organization’s Helpline at 800-658-8898.
  • Build your own “Grief Competencies.” To enhance your skills and to become more comfortable with the subject of grief, consider what you can do to build your own “grief competencies.” Start a journal, join a book discussion, share coping strategies, enhance your resource file, or get training on listening skills. If you have access to a computer network, use it to create a bulletin board of ideas with your colleagues and friends.

The Power of Grief
As a witness to grief, your own rewards can be extraordinary. While supporting a grieving client, you will learn important lessons about yourself and about human nature. Your presence and your gifts will contribute to mutual healing. You will be making a powerful statement that good lawyering goes beyond the technical boundaries of the law school curriculum. And, above all, you will be helping to create a climate of hope for someone who has turned to you at a time of deepest need.

Nicholas McConnell, Esq., Member, Jackson & Campbell, LLP in Washington, DC; Naomi Naierman is President and CEO of the American Hospice Foundation; Johanna Turner is Principal of Said & Done.