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Healing and growing after the murder or negligent killing of someone you love is of utmost importance to the surviving family, especially your children. They need you now more than ever! But you also need mental and legal help and don’t know how to deal with everything.
For example, what if there is no will or trust left behind? What if your dad was a Marine Veteran, and you want a full military burial in California? Who handles that? Most of all, what if you lost your only form of income, the breadwinner? Even sadder, there is no life insurance, and your house payment is due.
Most people don’t even think about any of this until someone has passed away. Now, the stress is overwhelming. But you are also trying to heal, and every lawyer you have talked to is less than caring. They could care less about the funeral, the military heritage, nothing. All they want is MONEY!
After all, it wasn’t their kin who died. Most personal injury attorneys are prominent in telling customers how much money they have won people in court or how many great Yelp! Reviews they have. Sometimes, there are just intangible qualities you seek in a lawyer other than their greed and undeniable need to fuel their G-6, cover a large house payment, etc. And I am not knocking wealth at all. I’m afraid I have to disagree with the hypocrisy that goes along with pretending to care about people that seem to permeate my industry.
But one crucial element of personal injury lawyering is understanding that more human factors exist in a “personal” injury than the law of negligent torts. Caring goes hand in hand with healing your client as a lawyer. No one wants to be treated like cattle. So below, we will discuss grieving and wrongful death. I will give you one of several personal examples before I go into my extra-legal qualifications and personal experiences in heart matters. In other words, I am an expert on the topic of grieving, and I will share with you what I know when it comes to the personal injury grieving process.
A personal injury has two main areas of significance to most non-attorneys.
And these essential aspects are:
Personal injuries can include damages to property, your body, and your human emotions, including wrongful death, battery, and even breaches of your right to privacy. Personal injury lawyers are notorious in popular movies like “Rainmaker” for impersonally hanging out at hospitals’ emergency room areas and following EMTs around.
And this got so bad that laws were passed to stop this activity. And this is why people are called “ambulance chasers” by people until they get in an accident and need help anyway. But labels and stereotypes exist for a reason. And in this article, the main topic that we will address is the human aspect of hand-holding and the other duty your lawyer has to be your “Counselor” at law, not just your money machine.
Most of us know the legal definition of negligence, which is:
So, in a nutshell, this is what most lawyers think of when they think about a personal injury. And this is basically what they teach us lawyers about personal injury, and probably one reason we come off like vultures. After all, the dehumanizing of unique things losing a child or being forced to use a gun in self-defense in case briefs, can create a culture of insensitive office drones and cynical jurists.
And even lawyers who got into law school with the idea of becoming social justice warriors soon learn that legal malpractice insurance, bar dues, and advertising costs require them to do more than lobby for their political beliefs. After being in a rollover automobile accident as a teen, my experience was that personal injury lawyers did not return calls, were primarily egomaniacs, and was far to the left politically.
And knowing that, I assumed these “personal” injury lawyers would be far more empathetic to the plight of people who recently lost a loved one in a car crash, for example. But I was way wrong. I found the exact opposite was true. I discovered that the lawyers with a more military background were far more concerned about concepts of dealing with personal loss and personal honor.
To sum it up, these are people who are defined. They have “character.” So what do I mean by all of this, and why does it matter? First, I don’t care how much money my lawyer can get me if they are jerks. And I think you’re a jerk if you screw fellow lawyers under or the public. And I think you’re a jerk if you are more concerned about who has insurance than you are about a person’s loss of their child, mom, or dad.
So I lost my father a few weeks ago due to cancer from exposure to Agent Orange during the U.S. conflict in Southeast Asia (67, 68, 69). My dad, Sergeant Paul Ehline, was a Marine, very defined, and very honorable. True, he was rough and tough. Also true, he was just and righteous in understanding his duty to me as a spiritual advisor, not just as a life skills teacher. He was a good Swedish altar boy at his Lutheran Church, won contests in paper route sales, and wanted to be a missionary.
But he knew he would be drafted into the latest war against communist oppression. Knowing his lottery number would be up soon, he went and joined the Marines. Due to Paul Ehline’s personal esprit de corps, he told me on more than one occasion: “I wanted to be the best, so I joined the Marines.”
During his two tours in Vietnam, my father preached and handed out bibles to the Mong Villagers he worked with and helped train in indirect fire counterinsurgency tactics. I included a few of his pictures so you can see I am not BSing you at all. My dad was a MOS 0848 and performed the duties of a forward observer, often embedded with Force Recon Marines. As an artilleryman, his job was to call in and dial in airstrikes and artillery. So he dropped warheads on the enemy’s foreheads in support of his fellow Marines at the forward edge of the battle area. Part of his job was calling in artillery shells and bombs filled with chemicals and defoliants like Agent Orange around firebases under construction by the Navy Seabees or already occupied and built.
These now infamous defoliants killed all the trees and jungle life around the perimeter. Hence, it was harder for NVA and Viet Cong to infiltrate and overrun firebases, a favorite tactic used against the French, leading to their defeat by the Vietminh. Paul’s path and his need to be the best at all things would bind him to me and me to him forever. So much so that I joined the Marines upon graduation from Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, California.
His decision meant dying a terrible, wrongful death (murder, in my opinion) from being exposed by our government to Agent Orange and then shoddy treatment by our Veterans Administration System, which is another topic for another day. But most of all, my decision to be a U.S. Marine also came with grave consequences, mainly from my eternal need to be the best at all things. But I am being disabled from military service after a knee and other related injuries, which has been a real struggle.
Why am I telling you all this? Simple, now you can see I have grieved and suffered immensely from injury and death, and I also practice law. So I am giving this a human face so you can see that some of us are patriots with a personal sense of duty and honor that breaks the stereotype. Next, I want to explain how I am dealing with wrongful death. Afterward, I will offer some ideas to help us get through all this tragedy together.
What are some different types of grieving? There are several types of bereavement. There are cases of sudden death, like when someone gets killed in an airplane crash. Then there are drawn-out circumstances of death, such as someone slowly dying of tumors from smoke or chemical exposure or a downed motorcycle rider passing away after a year or more in a coma. Any death is terrible, but the latter at least gives you a chance to prepare for what’s coming.
An example of low-level grief many of us know: Many of us have dealt with a crushed buddy who just got dumped. Coping with losing a girlfriend or boyfriend after six months of dating can be very painful and make people lose weight, start drinking, or turn to drugs. Some people get skinny; some people get fat. The reason I bring up this example is that not everyone knows the grief that death brings. But most people know what it’s like to lose a lover or close friend, like a military brat who moves to another town, for example.
The grief of someone dying due to the unjustified killing of another is usually way more tragic than a breakup. And in many ways, when the death is from complications related to a motorcycle crash, or chemical exposures like Agent Orange, Asbestos, or RoundUp Weedkiller, it remains far worse than natural death. Some people become suicidal. No matter what, part of you also dies. Your very soul feels damaged, sometimes impossible, or so you think. Most surviving offspring wanted their parents to die of natural causes like aging. Most parents wanted their offspring to live beyond them, procreate, and be fruitful. But when a third party kills your closest relative, you are robbed.
Yep, that’s right; someone stole something from you, a life! Now you may have feelings of revenge and regret. And that’s a hard pill to swallow.
Most of all, personal injury victims of wrongful death must understand that gradually, over time, you can heal. But it takes a lot of time. And you will have a whole spectrum of emotions. In my case, my father and I fought like cats and dogs. As his health diminished, he began doing things I felt were unreasonable, and I took it personally. I would say it was a beautiful, sunny day, and he would say it was dark outside.
Only later did I learn from his attending physicians that he also had undiagnosed conditions like dementia. So basically, I now struggle with the feeling that I abandoned my dad. And that feeling is reinforced in my perception of myself as seen through the eyes of others. Real or imagined, I felt like I had just been drummed out of the Corps. But if you had a perfect relationship with the decedent, excellent.
I also struggle with feelings of hatred towards our VA system for making him wait five years to get into CarT therapy, Clinical Trials. A few days before dad died, I got a call that they were finally ready to start his clinical “work up” for Clinical Trials. Imagine that, and he gets approved just before he dies with a massive tumor on his chest! There are great tips about dealing with regret and revenge further down.
But I have found in my years as a wrongful death attorney that most clients did not have a perfect relationship and suffered more from regret than their family member’s actual loss. So this is for you because you are suffering incredibly and need the most attention.
So the first piece of advice I have for you, if you are lucky enough to have some warning of impending death, is to:
1. Bury the Hatchet with Decedent
At some point, you will have to come to terms with the person or persons who caused the death of your loved one. But what is more important is not holding grudges, arguing, and fighting with someone, especially your parents or siblings, right now. All that will do is hurt you and alienate you from others in your family circle. That’s right; it’s bad enough losing someone.
But when that integral person died, and you KNOW in your heart, you could have done more than bicker; that magnifies the pain seven times seventy. A healthy family brings with it a sense of honor and public shaming far worse than death by a thousand cuts. Please don’t do it. Yes, I understand that some of you may have had less than tender parents who didn’t discipline you out of love and were just brutes. But some parents were strict disciplinarians from a place of love, as stupid as that sounds.
Some parents believed they needed to break a child’s spirit, and others thought, out of fear, that they needed a hands-off, devil-may-care approach in partoting. The latter type B parent may leave the child feeling abandoned. The first, type-A parent example, is more common in religious families and the warrior class. And then there is the example of the child who tried so hard to have a relationship with their mom or dad, but due to the parent’s use of drugs, poor upbringing, or imprisonment, that was never possible.
Maybe the child did something to hurt the parent? Most of all, these are common and will eat you alive if you can’t bury the hatchet! In my case, dad and I ended our physical relationship with him, risking arrest until I made clear to Eisenhower hospital security that COVID-19 was not preventing this Marine from seeing off his Marine brother (dad) to Valhalla.
And guess what? I was the only, and I mean ONLY, non-medical provider allowed on that floor to see dad off. I am sure he was so out of it; he had no idea what I had just done to see him. Noteworthy here, the hospital security guard apologized for what happened in the elevator. I can say thank you, Paul Ehline, for teaching me that command presence that made it possible for me to be by your side when it counted most.
I was prepared to risk arrest to get to my father’s Command Post and give him that additional fire support. At least you have a fellow warrior by your side, dad. I hope my son is by my side when it’s time to check out. And if this Spartan-like relationship does not apply to you, then great, because your focus can be on other things than being eaten alive by REGRET! Most of my biker friends and fellow vets are dealing with PTSD and other things that make it hard for all involved. So that was for you guys. Roger that? But for all you civilians, keep reading because other things can help us recover emotionally after suffering a wrongful death or unjustified homicide.
Good luck, right? And honestly, I could care less if you had a beef, or if you’re upset, you were in a flawed argument and had not made up, or some other unsettled issue with the person who died. Why do you ask? After I went through it, I learned the untold and hidden truth that Jesus taught about forgiveness.
You forgive yourself, not the other person. Sure, we are all born knowing right from wrong. Trust me, people who did you wrong understand what they did. But we all do stupid things. Some silly things will prevent you from being close. But there is no excuse for you to send yourself to an early grave because of what the decedent did. Same for you; no matter what you did by failing to call an end to the war is over now.
So bury the hatchet and forgive yourself for not being the bigger person. My father and I had a chance to reconcile any issues we had on his deathbed. That was God’s gift to dad and me. But you can’t help but feel resentment. Sometimes it is too palpable. Why am I telling you things of such a personal nature? Because I don’t want anyone to make my mistakes. Suffering a personal injury is unique.
If your lawyer doesn’t have a deep understanding of relationships, your recovery journey will be hampered significantly. No amount of money is a substitute for a sympathetic ear.
Your goal should be to be a good person and keep your word. Part of being the right person is treating everyone with civility. All people matter; they were once some mother’s bundle of joy, even if she wasn’t their birth mother. Knowing this, we can try and find solace and make sense of it all. Taking revenge against those who caused the wrongful death can also land you in jail.
Now listen up, especially you Marines, SEALS, and 75th Ranger guys. Don’t get crazy. In cases such as murder, it is vital to know you will be the first suspect if someone disappears. Also, you have guys like me who can rip evil-doers apart in court without taking the law into your own hands. I am a particular legal operator with a very intimate understanding of how we handle things in and out of court.
Sure, you may not get justice in court. But our legal system is in place to delve out both civil and criminal repercussions to defendants. Besides, true justice would be getting your loved ones back. So let the DA deal with criminal charges and allow a plaintiff’s lawyer to handle the civil trial. Living a healthy life begins with acceptance. You heard right; approval of the loss is the genesis of healing your grief, not the end.
To recap, those who lost a loved one due to murder or wrongful death may not fully comprehend the legal aspects of a civil and criminal case. Because of this, we often feel helpless. It is harder to deal with when dealing with denial and shock from a loss of such monumental proportions than virtually anything life can throw at you. Whether it was a crime or just a mistake, it is no less tragic to you. Your rage and anger at yourself and the person who caused the death are often far more profound than in other cases. So below, I have provided some tips to deal with anger for wrongful death victims constructively.
Here are My Top Three Tips:
Most of all, grief after a wrongful death presents many expressions and manifestations. But each person’s grief is unique to them. You can’t create a formula that works for each person. Some of you may want to speak to the DA if it’s a murder. Others may have no choice but to deal with a wrongful death lawyer if they are to have any chance of getting compensation after losing the income the decedent brought to their family.
You can blow the statute of limitations and your chances at a civil resolution if you don’t. However, ultimately, a real test of healing deals with unresolved grief when facing the killer of a loved one. One way or another, you want some justice. And if they walk or get less jail time, you will likely be devastated.
Or maybe they had no insurance or assets and got life in jail. How are you going to survive? It makes it much more difficult to find inner peace when your world is turned upside down and the killer does not get public justice. Wrongful death cases are particularly tricky and horrific because of the loss of innocence. Just the thought that someone had the gall to act so irresponsibly that they took a life.
How devastating and incomprehensible is that? Holding the perpetrator liable in court can become a personal crusade for many as part of dealing with their grief. A famous example includes the Goldman family, doggedly pursuing their son’s killer, O.J. Simpson. In that case, OJ did not even know the victim, who was dropping off some expensive sunglasses OJ’s estranged wife had left at a nearby Los Angeles restaurant. Mr. Goldman’s dad harnessed his shock and rage. But his family was bewildered beyond belief. In the end, each personal injury is catastrophic and very private. So dealing with grief from a wrongful death will take time, based on your unique situation.
This article is in the loving memory of Sergeant Paul Ehline, USMC. Semper Fi, dad. See you in Valhalla Marine!
More Resources for Grieving Victims of Wrongful Death:
Michael is a managing partner at the nationwide Ehline Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC. He’s an inactive Marine and became a lawyer in the California State Bar Law Office Study Program, later receiving his J.D. from UWLA School of Law. Michael has won some of the world’s largest motorcycle accident settlements.