This week, we had a client threaten to commit suicide because of the divorce stress
We immediately convened a firm-wide consultation. At first, we didn’t know what to do, but then we discussed and then devised a plan.
We immediately communicated with the client by email and let her know that we very much care about her and we would like to meet with her in person right away. Fortunately, she responded and agreed for us to come to her house and meet with her.
Yesterday, myself, my associate Misha Leslie and my senior law clerk Cris Lam drove one hour to the client’s home.
She greeted us at the front door and took us into her dining room where she had already set up the table with bottles of water for each of us. She even had all of her legal papers ready.
I immediately explained to her that this visit was not a typical lawyer-client meeting, but it was a mental health check. I explained to her that we are very concerned about her mental health and wanted to make sure that her family was in close contact with her and that she had the right therapeutic supports and resources in place to make it through her divorce.
She then took the next 15 minutes to explain to us why she saw her life as being so dark that she wanted to end it. She explained to us her journey from immigrating from Southeast Asia to Canada with no money and no education. She then explained to us how she entered into a relationship and then a marriage that was toxic and abusive but that, in her culture, it was acceptable and so she remained in that marriage. She explained how all of the income and assets that were accumulated during the marriage were caused by her and her alone. She explained that her sudden onset of depression was triggered by a court proceeding that would jeopardize her entire life accomplishments including her sense of self and her lifetime of hard work. She explained that this caused her to question the meaning of life and whether she wanted to experience such a catastrophic loss to her personal and financial worth.
In this case, her ex-husband was asking for the partition and sale of the matrimonial home, a home that he was simply added on to title with no contribution at all by him. She showed us the house. It was immaculate. It was decorated from floor to ceiling with all of her most revered furnishings, art and family heirlooms. She explained that every penny that went into the purchase, renovation and upkeep of this home was 100% paid by her and her alone.
For her, the idea of being forced to liquidate the home, vacate it, relocate and see half of its value being passed to her ex was so devastating to her that she saw no reason to live.
As lawyers, we have no mental health or crisis management training. But I knew that our role, whatever we said or did, could have a radical impact on her mental health.
I reminded her that we were there to check on her safety and not to give her legal advice. I reminded her that we are not trained in this sort of issue but that we certainly could make recommendations and referrals to her that would assist her in managing the stress of her situation.
I then provided her with a logical roadmap that might be one that could lead to a successful outcome whereby she could keep her home. I gave her optimism. Most importantly, I conveyed to her that we had the knowledge, experience and expertise to assist her through this very tragic crisis in her life.
I let her know that she had a very good life, she had accumulated so much, she had adult children who love her and need her. I reminded her that she has a beautiful life in front of her to be able to enjoy as a future grandmother and amongst friends into retirement.
At the end of the meeting, I felt that I had done the best that I was able under the circumstances to help her deal with the divorce stress.
I shook her hand and thanked her for allowing us into her home and said goodbye.
It was a very difficult meeting, mainly because I have no training or familiarity in mental health or suicidal ideations. But when I reflect backwards on the meeting, I realize that I met a woman who was well put together, dressed very elegantly, had her hair done and make-up applied, living in a beautiful home with a lifetime of memories and achievements decorating her walls.
On one hand, I realized that she had a lot of life to live. But on the other hand, I realized that this client, much like so many of our clients going through a divorce, are struggling, are in pain, are living in tremendous darkness and isolation and questioning the meaning of life.
It occurred to me that this client is really all of our clients who are going through a very hurtful breakup of their most intimate relationship where they fear the loss of everything in their lives, their children, their assets, their income and their family home.
I am so privileged to be a family law lawyer that can play such an integral role in helping people find freedom from their past poor relationships and shine a light on what good life lies ahead of them and explain to them that I will be walking alongside with them through the journey from darkness to sunshine.
I will be checking in on this client and her family. I anticipate that she will be fine.
But this meeting reminded me that this client is every client at some level and that we family lawyers need to do a better job in building a rapport with them so that they can share with us their darkest moments so that we can play a role in presenting them with the optimism of their future.
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