Attorney Well-Being: Dealing with Grief – Group Therapy

This is a topic that comes into your life and career as an attorney sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes with warning, but without the ability to prepare fully. As an attorney, it may be in your nature, like mine, to want to prepare. This is the nature of a lawyer from early on.

In law school, we were taught before our first day of classes, you had to prepare. Maybe you were sent cases to review before showing up for your first day or before you stepped onto campus, like I was, but the concept of reading in preparation for class was there. We had to be ready to be called on in class and then as practicing attorneys, we are expected to come to meetings prepared and ready to answer or give a presentation. With grief, there may be no way to prepare. I mean you could read books on the topic of grief or articles related to the subject, but there really isn’t any way to prepare for the death of a loved one or the personal experience of grief after their death.

Last summer, my mother died. Her battle with cancer lasted six years, but a significant amount of that time was in remission. Multiple remissions. The cancer presented four times. Each time was different. But the most devastating part of the last cancer was its aggression. Never before had my mom been so debilitating from a physical nausea standpoint. It was terrible to witness her going through such pain. Her agony and in and out of the hospital and doctor’s office daily existence was a nightmare.

The realization that the cancer was back and had spread so much was a shock. One that was very difficult for me to accept. The secondary shock after that realization was that my mom chose hospice. I could see that she was depleted. I could tell that she didn’t want to go through more treatment, but hospice was a total, core-shaking concept to come to terms with for me. She was only in hospice for one week so even during that time it was difficult to move from acceptance to full knowledge of what that meant. I don’t know if I made it to that level of understanding before she died.

The physical shock and disbelief of what was happening was difficult to deal with, but the mental and emotional toll it was taking on me was an underlying challenge that only really has unraveled in the past seven months. The idea that we can still grapple with issues mentally with a loved one that has died is a foreign concept for me. And we are the only one left to deal with the relationship issues. Thinking about my mom now is a roller coaster of emotions and unexpected ones at that.

The process of grief was new to me. I had experienced grief after the deaths of grandparents, but never have I experienced grief as significantly as with the death of my mother. Grieving to this level or depth is a day-to-day struggle.

To help deal with the emotions, I recommend trying group therapy in the form of grief counseling. I tried this and found it to be helpful. I have not stuck with it. I found it helpful during the first few months after my mother’s death. I have found that I am not making time for the meetings anymore. This could be because on one level I don’t find them helpful to me anymore, but on another level I could be trying to push away the feelings that the meetings brought up in me. Whatever the reason, I recommend trying it at the very least. There is something in particular about grief that lends itself well to a group therapy setting. Listening to others share their feelings resonated with me. I found that I realized I was not alone in my thoughts and feelings, which was reassuring. For that alone, I found it valuable.

At first, I found that I hesitated in sharing with family and friends that I was participating in group therapy. It is shocking to me that the stigma surrounding mental health issues still is alive. Seeking mental health counseling should be openly accepted, but the sad state of affairs is that it is not. Personally, I struggled with depression during my freshman year of undergraduate at Northwestern University. I thought that because I had that experience I would be more able to share about participating in group therapy, but I wasn’t. If a friend asked why I needed a ride for my daughter, at first, I said I had a meeting. No explanation. Then, after more thought and a personal pep-talk, I was able to share that the meeting I went to was a support group for adult children whose parent recently died. Why is that hard to share? Even now, writing on this topic is difficult. The initial thoughts I have are always of judgment. Looking weak. Unable to cope. When in fact, it is the opposite. A person who is able to recognize a difficult situation and address it by seeking the care and counseling of a professional mental health practitioner is actually strong and making a completely healthy choice. Our legal profession should not only seek to de-stigmatize mental health issues, like the ABA talks about doing, but openly promote the use of professional mental health programs by attorneys and law students.

Grief can be dealt with in a myriad of ways. But one way that is probably the most effective and healthiest is with professional group therapy. The support that can be given is immense. The further professional referrals could be life-saving for some attorneys struggling through the grief after the death of a loved one and the on-going stress of practicing law. Mental health programs for grief should be fully supported by the ABA and legal employers.

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail, Esq.

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