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Losing a Loved One in a Wrongful Death Case

California law provides that damages can be recovered for wrongful death - for the loss of love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society and moral support. Explaining these losses to a jury is often accomplished by the telling of stories. Storytelling is the most efficient way for delivering truths and transmitting knowledge. We listened to stories when we were young, and we listen to them when we are old. They move us. They place us at the scene of important events, and they teach us.

It is this faith in storytelling that inspired me to ask my friends (many of them clients) and relatives to give me their thoughts and ideas on describing the unexpected loss of a loved one.  Each person is precious, and each wrongful death case is the story of the life of the decedent and the lives of those who survive.  Each story is a telling of something important - something that touches our lives and our hearts. While the recovery for the loss of love is not the only element of damages, it is the most important, for it helps to define all of the other elements. In the words of 1 Corinthians 13:13 - " So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

  • One close friend of mine, himself well conversant with loss, cited the "four saddest words" immortalized by the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier: "It might have been." It might have been, we might have been, or she might have been. And now she is gone.
  • Another friend, a retiree, notably touched by the grief of others, observed that "when one loses his spouse he becomes 'the odd man out.'" He is alone while friends once shared with his spouse become somewhat distant - not by choice, but simply by circumstance.
  • The  loss of love can be said in the simplest of ways: "My mom was the first one to call me on the morning of my birthday and to tell me that she loved me. She did this for almost fifty years. That stopped when she passed away."
  • The utter devastation of lost love often cannot be uttered in direct words. One mother of a large family told me that she did not know what the loss of her nephew meant to his mother until she lost her own son. Words conveyed the idea - but deep sadness, a quivering voice and a sense of loneliness said far more.
  • For one business colleague who hails from a successful immigrant family, the loss  of her grandmother was the loss of someone who loved her unconditionally - someone who assured her that she was grandma's favorite. She lost part of her youth when her grandma passed away.  She's taken what she learned from her grandma and applied it to her nieces and nephews. They, like her and all of us, need unconditional love.

Several friends talked of the loss of a loved one after a long and protracted illness - an illness that taxed their abilities to care for their dying relative.  They said that the care was hard, not really gratifying, and through memory loss or just plain crankiness of their relative, the process wasn't too peaceful. Some expressed guilt that at the death they felt relief. This is understandable but is better positioned in its true light. When there is lingering illness, however caused, the love for the dying might not feel like love at all. It might feel like obligation - like a burden. But in digging a little deeper we can see that the love might be based on our most cherished values, such as "Honor your father and mother." We can step back and think about this a little further as shown in the Gospel of Matthew 21: 28-31.

"What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' The boy answered, 'I will not.' But later he had a change of heart and went. The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, 'I will, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did his father's will?" They said, "The first."

The lesson for my friends who feel guilty: "Which son or daughter did the father's will? " It is the person who stood by the dying - who stood despite inconvenience and even resentment. Is it not that person who honored their father, mother, brother, sister or child?

  • The love of a friend is a resounding theme. One young man, a brand-new lawyer, told me that after losing his best friend, his relationships with his other friends suffered. He compared those surviving friendships to that closeness he had with his deceased friend, and the surviving friendships did not measure up.
  • A young woman, a teacher, talked of a lost loved one in her life. She feels an emptiness in her life, a heartache that never really leaves but ebbs and flows. The thought of her loved one also scares her in a sense - as if another shoe might drop - that another loved one will be lost. This is troubling, but she takes positive joy, gratitude and happiness for all of her family.

Each loss has its own story. In a wrongful death action, each story must be told. It is often told by others - others can be particularly insightful. This is written to help give some context to what otherwise is simply a line in a California statute. To those who have lost a loved one, their story does not stop- just as love doesn't end after loss.

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