One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is supporting bereaved families during a bereavement as they seek to understand how their loved one died. However, working with clients in the aftermath of a death, particularly when the circumstances of the death are unclear, distressing or seemingly shrouded in secrecy, comes with its own unique challenges. These are a few ideas for how lawyers can best support clients who are grieving.
1. Thoughtful Communication
No two clients are the same and bereavement affects everyone differently. Some clients will want to talk openly about their loved one, others may struggle to do so. Tailor your approach to your client.
Amongst other things, grief can cause depression, affect sleep and impair concentration. Take extra care that all communications are clear and concise. It may that the client has a strong preference for receiving information in writing or verbally depending on their ability to understand and process it. Ask them what works best for them.
Diarise key dates such as the deceased’s birthday or the anniversary of the death, and bear in mind dates like Mother’s Day and Christmas, which can be especially difficult times.
2. Managing the Case Timetable
A careful balance has to be struck when considering the rate of progress of the case. Some clients want things advanced as quickly as possible whilst others do not feel able to face up to reading documents about the death for some time. Despite our best efforts, the legal action itself may exacerbate grief or trauma for the family of the deceased and this should be borne in mind. Care must be taken to advance the case promptly whilst ensuring there is a full and thorough investigation.
There are often external forces at play, such as a coroner’s inquest, other investigations or limitation dates which may dictate when certain steps need to be taken by the family. Understanding their preferences and managing expectations of timescales as best you can is key.
3. Make Use of Available Resources
There is a wealth of useful information available online and I recommend seeking these out whether for your own understanding or for sharing with clients who may benefit from them.
Some charities/organisations have content designed for bereavements of a specific type of person, such as where it is a child who died, or tailored to the circumstances of death, such as stillbirth or suicide. These organisations are invaluable in supporting the bereaved and their details should be passed on to anyone who may benefit from them.
4. Seek Guidance from Professionals
It is common for lawyers to work in this area without any formal training on how best to support bereaved clients. Whilst you can learn a great deal through more experienced colleagues, I would always recommend seeking out training from a professional. Some providers host their own courses, e.g. SANDS, Cruse, Winston’s Wish but you may prefer to arrange in-house training through a local hospice, charity or grief counselling group, who are usually very happy to provide tailored guidance for the particular role you have in the process.
5. Look After Yourself
In an industry where serious injuries and death are sadly a common occurrence, it is important to remember the impact of working with vulnerable or traumatised clients.
Regularly hearing traumatic accounts and experiences, or dealing with distressing information, can really take its toll, especially if the issues resonate with you due to your own personal circumstances. Lawyers in areas such as this are at greater risk of experiencing vicarious trauma or burnout.
It can help to take time to acknowledge the impact this may have on you and speak out to share experiences, whether with colleagues or someone at home. Sometimes just talking about it can help ease the burden and there are organisations who offer specialist advice if you need it, such as LawCare or Claiming Space.
6. Look After Each Other
As lawyers who are used to helping others, we are often not the best at alerting others when we are struggling. As such, it is important we take responsibility for checking in with our colleagues to see how they are getting on. We should also bear in mind each other’s personal circumstances and experiences and be particularly mindful when work brings up issues which are pertinent for someone, for example if they have suffered a bereavement themselves or a similar traumatic event.
About the Author:
Ali Cloak is a Senior Associate at Royds Withy King, specialising in fatal claims and inquests.