This piece has been simmering and marinating in the back of my mind for awhile now. Meeting a mentor last week who had at a crucial juncture shared with me his story of loss and this time shared his current work to reframe challenges as opportunities inspired me to finally put this down in writing.
So too did this piece where Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and his two brothers at the age of 10 shared some lessons on loss and grief with Anderson Cooper, who similarly lost his father at the age of 10, a brother to suicide, and at the timing of this filming, just recently his mother.
Cooper talks about a letter that Colbert wrote to him following the death of Cooper’s mother wishing him ‘peace and grief’ and Cooper talking about how how he is coping with the help of others and how death has changed the trajectory of his life.
Both Cooper and Colbert also shared their experiences of life pre-loss and post-loss. Colbert talks about this ‘big break at the cable of my memory.’
Before I get into my experiences I want to define ‘loss.’ I know loss – to it’s extreme meaning is death but there is certainly more than that. For others, loss can be as simple as failing a course or dropping the ball on a big assignment. I don’t think comparing losses does any good nor does such a process take into account the fact we all have different relationships with loss. Some of us are used to it through our life experiences; stories of lives started in refugee camps, foreign lands, or with an early chapter of loss of family member. Some of us suffer from PTSD from traumatic experiences and violence. Others have had loss through breakdown of relationships with close partners or other family that continue to linger in day-to-day life today.
However, and to certainly generalize but with some basis, I don’t think lawyers handle ‘loss’ as well as the general public. We are a group who tend to represent a pathway of some past privilege, in worlds where loss (losing) can seem so foreign. We come places where ‘things just don’t go wrong’ – a pathway we drew up and executed to a T. Our perfectionism as a profession and ways we address problems (usually through ‘covering our own ass’, or ‘risk mitigation’) doesn’t allow us to comprehend and understand loss in a way we need to grow and move forward.
Personally, I haven’t talked too much about the time I dealt with loss and almost purposely so. I tried to give a talk at the Federation of after it happened (probably too prematurely) fumbling around without having prepared any proper notes. I lost my train of thought and likely rambled something incoherent – the wounds being still so fresh. I can tell you that the Law was incredible during my most difficult times. Not the actual content itself but the people and the experiences from it. I was able to chat with countless colleagues, like the mentor I met this week, who were able to open up to me on their own experiences of losing a parent. From the unspoken and the feared, it became counselling. In fact, it was my introduction to the power of counselling before even seeking professional help to tackle it. I also was grateful to have the love of my partner, my best friend, my mother and sister. There were certainly a lot of moments that tested those relationships but we’ve become stronger through it. Again, some gratitude (of the type Colbert discusses) through grief. I remember reading ‘When Breath Becomes Air‘ and several blogs/podcasts to prepare myself mentally for that moment. I still was terrible unprepared but I think somewhere it added some foundation. It was the first time (in awhile) I remember being able to read non-work materials because it turned into words that were that important.
I went back to work two days after my pops passed. My pops was always someone who never celebrated successes, nor wanted a big deal made of things. I thought about his ‘business as usual’ and ‘never take a day off’ approach to things and followed his lead. Did I go back to work too early? Probably. Did I go through a proper grieving process? Probably not. In hindsight, I would have taken more time. Yet, for me work gave me an escape. Today, I need an escape from work on some occasions to handle the effects of loss.
The biggest and most negative effect of loss and how it may affected me – and it was shared by Colbert and Cooper – has been the breakdown of memory, the compartmentalization of the past. My memories pre-2016 are nowhere as vivid as my memories since. I cannot piece together some of those moments. Much of my three years of law school have been blurred into probably a 60-second clip of 5-second memories. Truly the shards of glass and flashes that Colbert speaks to. I can barely remember my pops as an unsick bastion of strength and confidence and that grasping of fleeting memories is scary. It (has) worsened year by year.
On the flipside, it has given me a short-term loss cycle. I think it has allowed me to work through daily losses or mistakes quicker. I recognize, forgive, blame myself, but move forward in a very short period. I still have trouble grasping loss or mistake (a trait since I was a kid) but I am trying to breakdown my walls and let others in to help. One thing I recognize (and something I am working on) is not burdening the femmes in my life (including my mom, spouse, sister, and various colleagues) with these but to seek more comradery within men’s circles to chat about this as well and put aside our usual ego-dominate conversation.
It is ironic, as in my legal work, I push and press my clients to discuss their trauma, to open up, to try and detail moments and feelings in ways I cannot do myself. I still straddle that line of experience of being able to say ‘I know what you are going through’ but realizing that grief and loss is so different for each of us that I truly cannot, nor should, carbon copy my experiences on others. The gratitude I do have from grief is that it has opened me to be able to listen to the grief of others and spot it or the roots of it. I have not a psychologist but I have been able to understand the psyche behind unspoken words, reading between the lines, and some of the ways anxiety, stress, despair, depression, and fear can affect us. I don’t know if I would have seen it without my own personal experiences.
At the same time, because of how sensitive I can be to grief and suffering I partner with more senior practitioners and others who may be better at driving the legal analysis and are less on the client-facing side. I take short-term financial L’s (co-work with a senior colleague or work with an assistant) so we can have space to discuss how to separate law and emotion, prepare strategy and help address the burden (and responsibilities) of representation.
A lot of my work moving forward, through this early-mid stage of my career, is about ‘going on,’ not avoiding suffering but embracing it (paraphrasing Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air). Recognizing and appreciating the double-edged sword that is being more sensitive to the negative emotions and feelings of suffering (never being able to become ‘indifferent to it’ as some have tried) but that this is motivating for one’s work. That through tough days we should as Genia Ginzburg writes in Journey Into the Whirlwind (which I read in high school and re-read after my pop’s passing) still live and find someone each day to be grateful for.
I can truly say that I have found gratitude, through grief. Gratitude that the power of our profession that it is one that allows us to address the grief of others, of our clients. Moving forward that my work will always encompass an honest approach towards that grief and a vulnerability that I will share with my clients to create an environment where we can grow through our challenges together.
To close, I also want to offer myself and my time to anybody who is grieving or going through loss. I know I will be but a mere stranger. I don’t hold a psychology degree nor will I inundate you will self-help material. I can just assure you that I will be a listening ear to your hardship and struggle. Law is built off of confidentiality, privacy, but the search for resolution and understanding – platforms that too much of our world today cannot co-exist.
Meanwhile, personally, I will still move forward to learn to take more Ls. Holding the hands through someone you care about into the fire is hard – but ultimately it is our job and a resiliency, we need to build up and learn. Mistakes, losses, and grieving from those mistakes and loses (those we can control and those we can’t) is part of our job description.
I thank you all for reading through this and jumping into my world. I’ve show you a lot (some would say too much) but I do so with the hopes of de-stigmatizing the conversation around loss, grief, and the law.
With love through gratitude,