A lawyer's primer on loss: Grieving the death of a parent
Elias Lozada and Rosario Lozada in Miami in December 2019. Photo provided by Rosario Lozada.
“We are on borrowed time now.” That is what the manager at the assisted living facility where my father has lived for nearly four years gently tells me. A few weeks earlier, during a phone consult with my younger brother and me, my father’s physician introduces the word "hospice" into the conversation.
Elías, my 91-year-old father, had been sleeping more, eating less and communicating sparingly. An air of resignation hung about him. Gone were the frequent attempts to flee from his wheelchair or walker unassisted. Some days, when I arrived to visit, he looked at me with confusion. “Estoy esperando a mi hija,” he would say. “I’m waiting for my daughter.”
Months before, I had already begun to grieve the loss of my father’s vitality and sharpness. Memories from my childhood resurfaced: My father leaving the house for an early morning jog, in a dark brown ’70s-style sweat suit with a single white stripe gracing the side of each pant leg. My father racing my long-legged sister to our Ford Pinto station wagon in the parking lot. My father blasting classical music at 7 a.m. on Saturdays, admonishing my brother, my sister and me: “Get up! You’ve wasted half the morning already!” And at least once a week, an impassioned speech to the three of us, with a tightly closed fist raised high in the air: “Tienen que ser siempre así: un solo puño.” “You must always be like this: a single fist.”
On May 10, Elías died. I began to grieve anew.
What do lawyers know of grief?
The massive loss of life during the pandemic has brought death to nearly every household; a National Academy of Sciences study used a bereavement multiplier, concluding that for every COVID-19 death, nine loved ones remain grieving. How are lawyers processing the loss of family members, friends, colleagues and clients, whether because of COVID-19 or other illness, violence, tragedy or the natural cycle of living and dying?
Lawyers—experts in many areas—can fall short of acknowledging and feeling their own emotions. In a professional culture that prizes stoicism, we are more adept at addressing our clients’ needs than our own; we excel at immersing ourselves in cerebral work, distractions and maladaptive coping mechanisms. And we thus avoid painful emotions—including grief.
Lawyers are not alone. Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, found that of 70,000 people she surveyed, one-third judged themselves negatively for having what they considered “bad” emotions, such as anger, sadness and grief.
The result of these judgments? Individuals go into “lockdown” mode, ignoring or suppressing emotions, rather than acknowledging, accepting and managing them. This emotional rigidity can wreak havoc on our professional and personal lives.
During the past 15 months, we have all experienced loss. If you’ve spent years in emotional lockdown, consider this primer on acknowledging emotions, feeling and grieving. Above all, be gentle with yourself.
Understand that grief is not linear
Unlike a legal argument, grief does not follow a formula; it does not have a beginning, a middle or an end. One moment, I am steady and functioning; in the next, a smell, a song, a turn of phrase, or a birthday transports me back to the loss of my father.
In the days following my father’s death, an “old” grief unexpectedly reappears. Twelve years earlier, I’d lost my sister Marilu to cancer. Now, as I mourn the loss of our parent—a burden I had always expected to carry with both of my siblings—Marilu’s absence evokes a sudden acute sadness.
Three weeks after my father’s death, his birthday unleashes a fresh wave of feelings. I give myself permission to tell my 19- and 21-year-old children how I wish to spend the day. “Grandpa loved the ocean. I’d like to honor his birthday by going snorkeling in Islamorada. Will you join me?” They do.
Attend to your needs
In our professional role, we rush to meet the needs of clients, colleagues and judges, but what of our own needs? Even now, can you ask yourself, “What do I need?”
In the days and weeks following my father’s passing, my needs vary: sleep, food, solitude. Human connection with people who knew my father. Human connection with people who love me. Quiet time to reflect and write a eulogy.
I reach out to my father’s family, spending hours on the phone with my father’s 87-year-old brother, sharing thoughts for the eulogy. I take long walks with my own brother. I pull out pictures of my father beaming as he holds his grandchildren. I work on a jigsaw puzzle with my goddaughter, Fiona.
Say yes to support
As lawyers, we support others. When we grieve, we need to be open to others’ support—at work and in life. A colleague might pick up a case or attend a meeting. Others might address our basic human needs.
Two days after my father dies, a close friend from college texts, “Lunch is on us,” with a link to the menu of a local restaurant. I hesitate, ready to decline. And then I respond, “Thank you.” I take each family member’s order. We are grateful when the meals (plus a surprise chocolate cake) arrive.
Welcome all emotions and thoughts
In law, we use emotion as a tool of persuasion. When emotion does not serve our objective, we eliminate it. In grief, however, what we resist, persists.
Each day, I attempt to create space for unsettling and unpredictable emotions: sadness, nostalgia, loneliness, anger, shame, guilt, gratitude, hope and laughter—to name a few. My energy fluctuates from lethargic and languishing to productive and even playful. I am vulnerable, sharing feelings and thoughts with trusted friends over walks and meals. Sessions with a therapist help me remain open to the conflicting emotions and to the process of grief. With her guidance, I work to fear my emotions less.
For instance, I lament the person that my father wasn’t—the father I didn’t have. Like most parents, my father fell short in some respects. His unpredictable moods and cutting criticisms gave me wobbly legs and shallow breathing in my teenage years.
The fear of my father was my companion well into my 20s, even as I still strived to make him proud. Yet, I discover a crevice of an opening for compassion; during his early years, my father was separated from his parents and 10 siblings for a decade, given away by his father to a childless uncle and aunt. How could he have passed on a sense of safety that he had not experienced himself?
Consider enlisting a licensed therapist or a bereavement counselor to help you process your grief. Clients turn to lawyer-experts in vulnerable times. Can lawyers do the same?
Feel through disappointment
We humans, perhaps particularly lawyers, can be primitive in our understanding of grief. Accustomed to controlling situations, we might shy away from challenges that seem too personal. Then, when we grieve, even the closest of friends may stay away during dark times, not knowing what to say. Others might simply forget that someone close to us has died.
One of my dearest friends does not attend the services for my father. Her absence is painful. A few days later, after extended family leaves town, I email her my father’s eulogy with a note: “I want to share these reflections on my father.” My cell phone rings within minutes; “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to support you at the visitation,” she says. My honest response: “Me, too. I wish you had been.” Days later, we share a meal together. We connect. We repair.
By responding authentically, I honor my grief and am able to strengthen a significant relationship.
Carry your grief with you
The process of grieving may linger for years. In time, we may carry our grief with greater ease and grace. Take comfort in the words of poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke: “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
For those seeking mental health support resources, the ABA has a mental health resources page for lawyers.
Rosario Lozada is chair of the Association of American Law Schools’ Section on Balance in Legal Education, and she teaches at the Florida International University College of Law. Lozada is an advocate and student of well-being in the profession. She trained as a mindfulness facilitator with the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California at Los Angeles. She can be reached on Twitter at @RosarioLozada9.
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