Stigma-free Grief Recovery for Lawyers with Heather Horton (TFLP 087)

Heather Horton is a lawyer by training who now operates her own grief recovery company, The H-Squared Group, LLC

On this episode of the podcast, Heather Shares how she moved from accounting to law and now into her current role advocating for and teaching stigma-free grief recovery for lawyers and non-lawyers alike.  

Transcending Trauma And Stigma

Heather had a realization while she was a practicing lawyer: as lawyers, we’re managing the burdens of the world, but we’re not managing our own burdens. 

Now, she is trying to transcend lawyer well-being through stigma-free recovery and support through her business by providing them grief recovery, support, and coaching.

She experiences some significant trials and traumas in her own life and tried to move along as if nothing has happened. This didn’t work and after discovering her own path to recovery, she now helps others with theirs. 

Grief Isn’t What We Think It Is

Heather now knows and shares with us that we experience grief every day because grief is the normal and natural reaction to any type of loss or change. And we experience loss and change every day, we just don’t label it as that.

Grief is not just around death, of course, it is that too. But it’s both big and small, it’s in the mundane. 

This issue with labeling only “big” things as grief or warranting grief, is that if we don’t realize we’re experiencing grief, then we don’t allow ourselves to grieve. And if we don’t allow time and space to grieve, we lock all that emotion into our nervous system. And it just comes out – often in anger, for example.

As lawyers, we often have this idea that we can just think about our situation and process information in our brain, and then move on. But the fact is that you can’t just think something about a thing and then move on. 

Grief is a heart issue, not a head issue. 

It’s a heart issue and lawyers are always trying to use their heads or make logic of something. And really when loss and change happens, our heart is broken. It’s not our head that’s broken.

And if you don’t process the little things, when the big things come, you’re trying to process the big thing and all of the little things that have accumulated, which can lead you to seek comfort in things that only provide you short-term relief, but end up causing you long-term damage.

Lawyers Can And Should Be Vulnerable 

Heather believes that our societal perception of lawyers is that we are not meant to be vulnerable or show any emotion. 

But we are people before we’re lawyers and we brought our past into law school. 

And if we haven’t processed our past before we go to law school, then we matriculate through law school and deal with all that comes with that. Then think we’re going to establish a healthy practice, that’s generally far from the truth.

And this sets us up for failure. Which is why the legal profession is at the point where so many are overwhelmed with mental illness and substance abuse.

If She Can Do It, I Can Do It

Before Heather was sharing her knowledge of grief recovery with so many of us, she was a budding law school student. 

She wasn’t one who grew up dreaming of law school. In fact, she only saw one female lawyer growing up and had gone into accounting, earning her CPA and working 7 years in accounting and auditing. But in 1999 she was in an accounting-related job where she had to examine credit unions and the issue of bankruptcy came up – she realized that was more a legal issue and that she could go to law school to learn more about it. 

It just so happened that at the time she was having these thoughts she was dating a guy who had a female roommate who was in law school, which made her think, “Wow, I can do that.”

From there, the process of getting into law school was quick. Heather applied to law school at the end of 1999, took the LSAT once in March 2000, and started school that fall.

The Beginning

After law school, Heather started as a trial attorney with the IRS Office of Chief Counsel in their New Orleans office and then moved with them to Arizona. 

She stayed in this trial attorney position until October of 2010 and then went to the headquarters of her division, which was the small business, self-employed division, to work for two years as a staff attorney. 

She wound up actually becoming an associate area council, which is like a manager of a group of attorneys, in the Washington D.C field office. After about three years she decided she didn’t want to manage people anymore.

Heather went back to being a trial attorney for about six months and things just didn’t work out. It was all a bit of a whirlwind. Heather moved to North Carolina to be closer to her family, but something happened at the office and she really realized that her voice needed to be heard on a national level with respect to diversity and inclusion, and hiring.

After that incident, she decided to put in an application for a job she really wanted back in Washington, D.C.:  Director of Headquarters Operations for the small business self-employed division at the IRS. She got the job and moved back to Washington D.C within six months of moving to North Carolina and stayed there until she left the IRS in 2017. 

Taking Diversity And Inclusion Into Her Own Hands

In discussing her path as a lawyer, Heather shares that when she started in law in 2004, there was a national CLE and she got the chance to meet other attorneys of color that worked for the IRS through that, but they were few and far between. 

It seemed like even 10 years later as she matriculated through different areas, there was not a concentrated effort on getting more minorities in the small business self-employed field division. 

So she took it as an opportunity to recruit. Every time there was an opportunity she would go help recruit so she could find other people to bring more diversity in differences of opinion to our organization.

The truth was, in most of the offices she worked in, she was the only attorney of color. And in her last job, part of the reason she wanted the job was that it involved direct access to be able to recruit people of color and add more diversity to the organization. 

In that role, she would end up adding more people of color to her organizations because she intentionally reached out to the six HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) law schools. She would reach out to those schools personally to ask them to share the announcement with their law students and alumni so that they could gain more diversity and inclusion.

“I Know This Is For Me”

During her experiences of seeking out more diversity and inclusion in her workplace, Heather even went so far as to find a coaching program that centered solely on diversity and inclusion, so she could bring that back to her organization. 

Heather put together an event, a chief council lecture series, where they focused on implicit bias and how that impacted the legal profession. It was the first time that the chief counsel’s office had had an all black attorney panel.

It was just an amazing event, and when she went to lunch with the people afterward, she felt her first pings of “I don’t even want to go back to work because this is  so profound.”

Between that feeling and some pushback that things weren’t going to change, Heather began to realize that maybe her expertise and values and everything else she brought to the table was needed elsewhere. 

The Accident That Changed Heather’s Path

While all of these pieces of the journey Heather shared so far is important, it misses one of the major events of her life that impacted how she ended up where she is today. 

During her first year of practice, her family, including herself, was in a tragic car accident. Her mother passed away the day after the accident, her aunt two weeks later, and she had a fractured neck and thumb, and many cuts and bruises. 

It took her a while to recover physically from it, and in hindsight, she had really processed all that had happened with her family members. 

Then, as she is recovering from her neck injuries, she regains some independence from being shuttled around and cared for by her father and grandmother, is able to drive again and return to work, Hurricane Katrina hits. 

She was able to shelter “in place” 80 miles inland, but it was weeks before she could return to her apartment to see what was left of her apartment. 

Fortunately, Heather’s belongings were ok, but she had had enough and decided to move, there was nothing left for her in Louisiana. She felt like an orphan, even though her father was still alive because her parents were divorced and she just wanted to be alone with her thoughts. Heather didn’t want to talk to my family, because they didn’t want to talk about what happened. And that just really put her in a different space. 

Her job allowed her to move to Phoenix, Arizona, but what she hadn’t realized was that while she was trying to flee from everything that had happened and be alone with her thoughts, moving was a grief experience as well. She was leaving her community of 33 years after all. 

Recreating Life

Heather had to reestablish who she was. She didn’t know anybody in Arizona, so having to recreate her life, figure out what her identity is, who she is as a person without her mother, was a very troubling experience.

But the move also gave her permission to seek help, because she felt like if she didn’t talk to someone, she was going to lose her mind. 

Heather started seeing a psychologist, something she’s not sure she would have done had she still been in Louisiana due to the stigma, and recreating her life. 

Moving Through Grief and Grief Recovery

While going to her psychologist was helpful, she just talked about what she was going through. And in order to move through grief or process grief, Heather explains, you have to be taking action steps, just talking about it is not enough on the surface.

One of the action items Heather realized she needed to do was reconcile her relationship with her father. 

They didn’t have the best relationship before her parents divorced, and when he left her mother, she had such disdain for him. A disdain that she realized she was carrying with her, and towards her other relationships. 

Heather’s anger was taking over her life and clouding her heart, because, again, grief is a heart issue, not a head issue. 

She began by focusing on the good that her dad added to my life, not just the bad. When she was able to look at the relationship as a whole, she had the realization that she was looking at one thing, while missing all the other things her dad had added to her life. 

Coping Skills Begin In Childhood

An important aspect of taking these action steps and grief recovery is realizing that we develop 75% of our coping mechanisms between ages 2-3. 

During this time, we observe and learn how to manage our emotions from others. By the time we’re 15, 90% of our coping mechanisms are set in stone, unless we do something different.

We have to be intentional about shifting our actions and moving through our emotions, otherwise we resort to our learned mechanisms. 

Taking Action To Allow for Grief Recovery

Due to her realization that action was needed to move through grief, not just talking, Heather now does a grief recovery method that’s an action program. She shares that we tend to think that time heals all wounds, but time doesn’t do anything.

That’s why, for example, she found herself, years later, after her parents had divorced, still angry with her father. 

We must take action in order to move through and release the pain. 

This pain can come from many experiences that we may not actually recognize as grief. For example, we hear the words burnout and stress a lot, those are actually grief, because we’re only burned out or stressed because something changed or we lost something. 

Change intangible things like finances, divorce, empty nesting, moving, retirement, and intangible losses, like those of your hopes, dreams, expectations, fertility, faith, safety, or trust are all grief experiences. 

We aren’t able to change other people or the fact that these experiences occur, so we have to make the decision to process our pain ourselves.  The only person you can do something about is yourself. And the world’s not going to change until we all get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Grief Is Affecting Us All

For lawyers, Heather notes, support like she offers is not just for you, it’s for your clients as well. 

Often, your clients are dealing with loss, loss of a loved one, of property, of a way of living and you can help them recover aspects of their loss, some damages, but they will still have a gaping hole in their heart if they don’t process the grief of the situation. 

So grief recovery and support is not only for lawyers to be better advocates for their clients, but it’s also to help their clients. 

This work is a ripple effect, it could change the world if we were all able to process our pain.

Connect With Heather

Mentioned In This Episode: 

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