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Lessons from my Father – Reflections of a Personal Injury Lawyer

The power of perspective is something my Dad first taught me but these days my personal injury clients continue to drive home this message.  The busyness of the Christmas season has me thinking about it some more. So, with this blog post I want to speak to the power of perspective, those caught up in the busyness of the season and also to those that may be mourning the loss of a loved one.

My Dad

Let me tell tell you first about my Dad. He is now 87 years old. He is a former homicide investigator and Chief of the Peel Regional Police Service. A gifted story teller, even today, he can regale you with any number of stories from recovering Marilyn Monroe’s dress (he had an option it was the dress or the Stanley Cup!) to surveilling John Lennon and Yoko Ono over the course of his career.

The lawyer in me comes out at times and I pepper him with questions about his career in policing. What was it like being cross-examined by Canadian legal greats like G. Arthur Martin, Arthur Maloney and Edward Greenspan? Who was the best lawyer you ever saw in Court? His stories are always entertaining. But to ensure I don’t fall into the trap of thinking it was easy, he’ll remind me, “Bill don’t forget, I have been shit on from the highest heights!” (pardon the language). It’s just his way of telling me that you have to do the work to achieve your goals.

Yet my Dad’s story doesn’t start with being a high profile police officer; it starts with growing up in the great depression. He was one of five sons born to Northern Irish immigrants to Canada. They made a living growing crops, raising livestock and selling vegetables to the Campbell’s Soup company and local markets throughout Toronto.  He and his four brothers attended a one room school. There were times when they would walk to school in bare feet or ride one of their horses. They always enjoyed Christmas however, it was very different from the Christmas we know today. A piece of fruit or a sweater made by grandmother were the standard fare yet they looked forward to Christmas every year.

Like many that grew up in the great depression, they were no strangers to loss. When the economy began to turn around, my grandfather built a big beautiful barn.  It would later burn down destroying all of their animals and produce leaving the family with nothing.  But like many Canadians of the era, they were survivors.

As Dad moved on with his life, he eventually joined the police department where he began a 34 year career. He became a high profile homicide investigator over time. Part and parcel to his role was witnessing the most horrific crime scenes one can ever imagine. Mutilated bodies, victims tortured to death and murdered children investigations all landed on his desk. When I ask him how he was able to deal with everything he saw, he sits back and thinks for a moment and says:

It’s because I was brought up on a farm in the depression Bill. It gives you a different perspective on things. I can still picture the crime scenes in my mind but with a few exceptions, you gradually learn to deal with it

The idea of “gradualness also comes in to play in his thoughts on the loss of a loved one. You see, he was in the hospital room with my grandfather when he passed away at the age of 56. In typical Irish fashion, even today my Dad gets teary eyed when he talks about his Dad who died over 50 years ago. I asked him “do you ever get over the loss of someone you love?” His response speaks volumes. He said:

You know, people say that time heals all wounds but that’s never been my experience. The pain remains. You just learn to deal with it better.”

But you can never underestimate the effects of gradualness

Then he says “I wish you could have met your grandfather Bill“.  I really wish I had met my grandfather too.

My Career as a Personal Injury Lawyer

My personal injury clients have taught me similar lessons.

There are many parallels between my Dad’s career and my career as a personal injury lawyer.  Like him, I am haunted by the stories of my clients. I can’t help but see the shadow of a drunk driver who crossed the centre line and mounted a side walk leaving my client’s body in his wake when I drive by the scene of the crash on my way to work.  Today my client is a paraplegic. I can’t help but think about the teenage boy whose life was cut short by a hit and run driver when I drive my girls to swim practice.  I think about his parents who had to bury their son. I think about the many clients I have represented throughout the years who have lost a child, a Dad, a Mom, brother or sister – particularly at Christmas.

Mourning the loss of a loved one at Christmas

What I experience however, pales in comparison to the experience of the clients I represent; seriously injured individuals and the families of those killed in car crashes, boating accidents, skiing accidents and snowmobile crashes.

This particularly rings true during the Christmas season for those who are mourning a loss. The holidays will never be the same for severely injured people and families who have lost a loved one.  For some, Christmas Eve will not be spent at midnight mass or at home with their family watching It’s a Wonderful Life; it will be spent alone lying in a hospital bed mourning the loss of their former lives. They are haunted by the smell of the Christmas tree, the taste of the hot chocolate, the sounds of laughing children and the feeling of “family”.  For others, there will be one less stocking hung on their mantle and an empty chair at Christmas dinner. The holidays will be a time of year when memories of better days stand in stark contrast to the reality of present day.

We’ve lost perspective

Despite this, Christmas represents the most stressful time of the year for far too many of us. Buying the right gift, dealing with family issues, ensuring our children have an equal number of gifts, braving the over-crowded malls; even getting a parking spot can spur a range of emotions from anxiety to utter rage. To many of us, Christmas has become a burden not a blessing. That’s because we have lost perspective.

My Message to you – Regain your Perspective

We can learn from my Dad and the families I represent and others who mourn the loss of a loved one at this time of the year.  If we ask them, they would tell us that they would give anything for just a few minutes with their loved one sitting around the Christmas dinner table:  To hear their voices, to see their smiles, to feel their presence.

My message to you this Christmas is this. No matter the burdens of your hectic life, take a step back and heed the lessons of my Dad and my many clients. We have to change our perspective. Cherish this time with your loved ones because life can be fleeting. Putting aside the obvious religious and cultural importance, Christmas is about the people.  Our friends, families and loved ones are what make the true spirit of Christmas.

For those of you like my clients who will mourn the loss of a loved one this Christmas, hold your family and friends close and share those special moments knowing how truly blessed you are. You may still feel the pain deep down inside but as my Dad would counsel you “never underestimate the effects of gradualness“.

To everyone, let’s focus on what matters at this busy time of the year whatever your faith may be. And while we are at it, let’s say a prayer for all of those, like my clients, their families and others, who have one less stocking hung on the mantle.

Merry Christmas from me – and my Dad.

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