What Can I Expect in the Weeks After Losing a Loved One to an Accident?
During my 25 years as an injury lawyer, I have witnessed firsthand the suffering that accompanies an accident, the tribulations an unexpected death can bring.
This message will share solutions for those suffering, for family and friends who do not know what to do after a sudden loss. Feel free to copy, print, or even post it if you like. I wrote this to help, which it can only do if it is read.
Unexpected and traumatic, losing a loved one to an accident often leaves you and your family in the most difficult of situations. While overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow and anger, sometimes even guilt, you must make funeral arrangements for a loved one to whom you never had a chance to say “goodbye.”
You are probably still in shock and may feel overwhelmed with having to inform relatives, organize memorials, and make important decisions. You may be losing sleep and struggling to get through each day.
You are no doubt concerned about the future—but may feel afraid to mention it. How will you work and watch the kids? How will you pay for things, including the funeral? How will you get through this?
What is worse, you and your family are being inundated with telephone calls from insurance companies seeking to discuss an accident you may still hardly know the details about.
If this is you, let’s discuss a few things that really can help.
Family wants to help. Rely on them. Don’t withdraw. I know many of you feel that may be difficult but read on. Family can be a great resource for you. However, depending on the family dynamic, the help can sometimes be a burden. Here are two main family dynamics:
A helpful, close family will immediately circle and rally. They will plan, call, and notify others of your devastation and needs. Be careful, though, such help can sometimes be overwhelming. Make sure that you allow some time to be with your closest family, children, or spouse without interruption. Children are particularly vulnerable during this time. They need time with the surviving parent, even if it is to reestablish their daily routine.
You also need a routine. While much of what you have to deal with is hardly routine, some period of familiarity will help you each day. Try to reestablish, if even partially, whatever you enjoyed doing or did routinely before the accident. Simple examples include fixing the kids lunch before school, tucking them in, reading stories at bedtime, cooking, cleaning, or even gardening. Don’t let family take over all these routines. It leaves you stranded and with nothing familiar to do.
A forceful relative will start “taking over.” Things are decided that you may actually want done differently. The forceful relative even compromises things that may be important to you. This person is truly trying to help, but you are likely withdrawing, preferring to avoid conflict while you cope with the events. Unfortunately, your withdrawal sends the wrong message. Instead, politely ask that they confirm everything with you. While they are task oriented and can accomplish a lot for you, do not let others make all of the decisions for you. Later, you will regret not having done things exactly how you wanted them. Whether we are talking about funeral arrangements or flowers or food or a wake, it is your loss and your right to mourn as you choose.
Empower yourself to say,
“I appreciate your help, I really do, but it is important to me that things are done the way I want them. Could you please let me know what you have in mind before arranging anything? Please be patient. I may not be ready to decide something as quickly as you are.”
You can and need to apply this process to all you do in the next couple of weeks to avoid “losing it.”
Take stock of what you have right now. Do you have money to pay the bills with for the next couple of weeks? Can you take off time from work? Unfortunately, bill collectors do not care why you cannot pay, so inventory your finances. Start a plan.
Don’t forget to contact the credit card companies that your significant other used. Credit card companies sometimes have life insurance policies payable on accidental death. Call, or have a family member or lawyer call for you, to determine if there is any financial recovery available. Most people do not even know they have the coverage and it goes unused.
Check to see if there is any life insurance. Most know when a loved one is insured with life insurance. But it is worth reviewing the files to see if any policy you did not know about exists. I recall one client that consulted me a week after the accident. She did not think to look in the safety deposit box. She found a $250,000 life insurance policy and collected it all with a phone call.
Claims against the person or a company that caused the death should be examined by a professional. Don’t delay. Find a qualified and experienced lawyer that specializes in wrongful death and has a winning track record. I would only recommend that you consult AV rated Martindale-Hubbell lawyers, ones that have proven over the years to have a successful and honorable reputation, as rated by judges and their opponents. Never hire a lawyer with a bar complaint, or a friend’s recommendations without interviewing the lawyer.
A good personal injury lawyer will advise you of many of the things I raise in this article but much more depending on the special conditions. You want to make sure your lawyer is ready to find all the avenues of recovery, not just the obvious.
Also recognize that while the negligent party’s insurance company will have no problem barraging family members with questions, demanding a recorded statement and even telling you their insured has a limited policy to encourage settlement on the cheap, it will not be so quick to offer the money to which you are entitled. Recently, we had a client contact who had been represented by a lawyer. The lawyer said all that could be collected for this tragic case was the small, inadequate policy limit. Fortunately, the client came to us. We established that in fact the person was transporting other people for income and found a huge policy of insurance, literally 66 times as large.
Be careful with these typical mistakes: During this difficult time, certain actions—though, they may seem helpful—can seriously jeopardize the family’s claim and should be avoided. Here are the most obvious:
Family members should never give a recorded statement to the negligent party’s insurance company. They are not obligated to, nor would such a statement in any way assist in the resolution of their claim. When questioning family members, the insurance company is looking for information with which to deflect blame for the accident away from its insured and onto the decedent. For example, a spouse may reveal that her husband was working all night prior to the accident; information the insurance company could then use to construct an argument that the decedent’s fatigue caused the accident. Warn family members to speak to no one about the accident until you talked to a lawyer.
Don’t wait to get a copy of the police report before hiring a lawyer. Anticipate lengthy delays from the police department handling the investigation. Oftentimes, the police do not release any information about a fatal accident until the report is complete, a process that could potentially take several months. Some police agencies will release a “face sheet” only that includes identifying information; however, most police departments release all the information at the end, after a full report has been completed. You really can’t afford to wait, an early investigation will provide much more that a later started on.
Assistance with this process, whether through free, informative books and articles on what to expect after an accident and the mistakes to avoid, or by speaking with an experienced attorney, often allows families to focus on what is most important: grieving for the loved one they lost.
Author of several books and articles designed to help victims of accidents and their families, attorney James Ballidis has practiced personal injury law in Orange County for over 25 years, receiving several accolades, including the Martindale Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers AV rating for his exemplary trial skills and strict adherence to a professional code of ethics. For more information about he and his firm see www.thecaliforniainjurylawyer.com.
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