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Navigating grief: one barrister’s perspective

This is my experience of grief. It may not be the same as yours. Grief of a partner, sibling or child I would suspect would look very different. I don’t propose to have the answers in the below, but hope that this blog will assist you and supporting others at the Bar who are dealing with grief.

In July 2020 my dad died. He had a massive heart attack at 5am and then was dead. Ironically my family and I had been waiting for my grannie to die at the time and she died two days later. Both deaths were quite different – one was sudden and unexpected, and the other was a long drawn-out death of somebody whose time had come after a long life.

On a Tuesday, I woke up at 7am to lots of missed calls and voicemails from my family which I didn’t understand. My mum spoke to me on the phone and told me in the clearest possible terms that she was very sorry but dad had died. I asked if she was sure, as my mum has a tendency to exaggerate in times of crisis, but she and my sister confirmed they were sure. My whole family was at the hospital in Scotland and I was in London trying to understand what they were saying. Instead of my first reaction being to turn to my partner and be comforted my first reaction was to call my clerks and then a colleague to get my case for that day covered. I was clear in my mind there was no time to process this information until my case had been sorted. My partner hovered by trying to figure out how to be supportive in the circumstances when all I could talk about was court. I was lucky that I was due to be in court for a case management in a public family law matter and not a trial. I emailed the judge and the parties to explain that my father had died suddenly and whilst I was trying to get the case covered it might be me in court. The judge immediately emailed me back with his profound apologies for my loss and assuring me that I was not to give the case a moment’s thought; he would ensure that the case was covered by somebody and that I should go and be with my family. Once that was sorted, it was time to organise travel and pack a suitcase. I am fairly confident that my early years in the criminal bar running around different magistrates courts in the same day taught me how to sort out trains and pack a suitcase filled with black suits when adrenaline is pumping through your veins.

What people don’t realise is how much death-min you have to deal with when somebody dies and you are the immediate family. Sorting out the funeral is one thing, but there is also registering the death, telephoning relatives, sorting out the finances in the immediate aftermath, throwing out belongings, sorting through old paper work. Lots of people expected me and my mum and sister to just be sitting and wailing, but there just was not the time.

My dad and grannie died during lockdown which meant there was lots of red tape to manoeuvre, such as the time I spent on the phone in a car park trying to get a covid test administered to the bodies in order that they could be dressed in the funeral homes. Or when the funeral home said they could only speak to my mum and uncle about the arrangements because of the need to social distance in the room, so I tried to argue that I would attend the meeting standing outside the window. We could only have 20 people at the funeral. I found this very difficult because my dad had been an active member of the community all his life and has served with a number of organisations which would have wanted to pay their respects. I was so angry that he did not get the send off he deserved and that this was not something I could argue my way out of – despite my attempts to do so.

So many people lost loved ones during lockdown and did not have the opportunity to perform the traditional end of life rituals. Temple Church recently held a service for those members of the Bar and those who are at the Bar who lost loved ones in lockdown and did not get a chance to have a full memorial as they would have had. It was an opportunity for the Bar to gives thanks for the lives and work of colleagues and to acknowledge their passing. I would suspect there is a lot of unprocessed grief for loved ones and members of the Bar that we didn’t get to say goodbye to.

On reflection, here are some of the things I have learnt as I navigated grief:

  1. Grief is both a universal experience and extremely personal. How one person experiences it may be completely different from another, but everyone at some point will experience it. I think at the Bar we are taught to believe that we are exceptional – that the case is lost or won based on our actions alone – and that mentality can creep into our personal lives too making us think that we aren’t affected by loss like everyone else, and nor should we allow it to affect us.
  2. Following on from that, everyone will understand that you need to take time off. Clerks and solicitors and colleagues were all very understanding and simply accepted the work would need to be covered by someone else.
  3. Which leads to me to point 3 – take more time off than you think you need. Because of the mentality at the Bar we can feel guilty about taking time off because others depend on us. In reality we aren’t that special, and in the aftermath of a loss you will not be serving your client’s best interests by powering on. It is the better decision for your client to return the case, if you can, to someone else.
  4. If your colleague is grieving, meet them where they are at. I had for some reason insisted that I would do a hearing in an ongoing case, the day in-between my dad’s funeral and my grannie’s funeral (see point 3!). I asked a few members in chambers for a draft skeleton argument they had done in similar cases, to help me draft my skeleton. Everyone very kindly told me to take time off and not do the hearing but for some reason I was determined to do the hearing. In that moment, I just needed someone to send me a skeleton. Listen to where they are at, meet them there, and offer to support them whilst letting them make their own choices.
  5. The brain fog is real. For the next 6 months to a year, I found my brain was just not as quick as it was before. It would take me longer to read through papers, to prepare a case, and to form an argument. I would have to strain to listen to other people as it seemed like I was underwater while other people were talking to me, and I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. I would also get more irritated with people and felt my empathy would drain quicker. I had to have an honest conversation with my clerks about this and the capacity to take on new work. They were completely understanding, and we worked on an arrangement which meant I could do my best, but on a reduced workload for about 5 months. If you communicate clearly with your clerks what it is that you need, they will make it work. But they can only do that if you tell them what it is you need. I did not then have the double bind of feeling terrible and then feeling worse because I wasn’t good at my job.
  6. I have no words of wisdom on the stages of grief. I understand they exist, but for me they tended to happen all at once, and did not provide me with a route map out of grief I hoped I could follow. I thought that if I could follow the rules on grief I could deal with it quicker – but that did not work. For me, grief still comes in waves, as time goes on, the time between the waves gets bigger. I find it’s the little things that are harder than the big things. I got married last year without my dad walking me down the aisle and everyone expected that to be a real trigger point. While that was emotionally tricky, it’s the every day things like not being able to call him and ask about how to fix the wobbly bathroom door or tell him about a joke he would have enjoyed that are a kick in the teeth.
  7. The biggest thing for me was understanding that I was now a changed person. One day I had gone to bed in a world where my dad was alive, and then next day I woken up in world where he was dead. I was now a person whose dad was dead and that was part of my identity. Finding people who understood that, helped. I would generalise and say that it helps to find someone who is experiencing the same type of grief – i.e. someone who has also lost a spouse/partner, sibling, parent, child. It can feel quite isolating for a time, being around a group of friends who have not experienced the same type of loss, so its good to find people. I also found reading about people who were experiencing grief helpful. A few friends bought me Olivia Potts A Half-Baked Idea. She recounts her time as a very junior member of the criminal bar whose mum died and how she used baking to heal. It helped to read about people experiencing the same thing as me, in the same environment at the Bar. It also meant that when I found it really difficult to explain to my now husband how I was feeling, I could just give him the page number in the book for him to read and say – ‘yeah that’ – when I couldn’t find the words.

The Bar is full of people who will support you, if you let them.

Anon (Barrister)


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