The grieving process is complex. Whether the loss is physical (the death of a loved one), emotional (a betrayal of trust), or a combination of the two, everyone will experience grief differently. However, psychologists have found some common patterns of grieving. For example, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously identified five (and later seven) stages of grief that most people will pass through during the grieving process.
When a person first reaches out to me about a case of nursing home abuse perpetrated against their loved one, they are usually working through one of the most emotionally exhausting stages of grief: pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, or depression.
By offering advice about how to report nursing home abuse, assisting them with a lawsuit if the case is actionable, or offering alternate options if there is no legal avenue they can pursue, I try to support them on their journey through the restorative stages of grief: the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and acceptance and hope.
In this blog post, I refer to the seven stages of grief to explain how you might be processing grief about what happened to your loved one at the same time as you seek justice on their behalf. I outline the steps involved in reporting and filing a lawsuit for nursing home negligence while also highlighting the emotional toll of discovering and healing from this traumatic event.
Shock and Denial: Discovering the Abuse
The first stage of grief is often the complete shock of the loss and the denial that this did or could be happening. Depending on how you come to the realization that your loved one has or may be being abused in a long-term care home, this stage can appear suddenly or slowly materialize as you absorb what may have happened.
While any indication of abuse of a vulnerable person will undoubtedly be shocking, if you find yourself denying that this could have possibly happened, make a conscious decision to work towards confirming or dispelling your suspicions. By compiling any notes, photos, videos or recordings of the questionable activity, you will give yourself time to absorb the initial shock and be better placed to logically consider the evidence before you if the worst of your suspicions are confirmed.
If your loved one lacks the capacity to make decisions about their own care and you are the substitute decision maker, install video recording devices whenever possible. If a picture speaks a thousand words, videos speak a million. Video footage of abuse can not only often clearly confirm evidence of a crime, but it can also be critically important for both the police to lay charges and for your legal representative to use in a future civil lawsuit.
Once you have compiled evidence, unless you have conclusively proved to yourself that there is no mistreatment, it is generally advisable to file a complaint. Non-urgent complaints (for things like diet, activities and care) should be made first to the long-term care home itself. By law, the facility should have posted information about the complaint process. The office staff should provide it upon request if you cannot find this information.
The facility must contact you within 10 business days to acknowledge receipt of the complaint and explain what they are currently doing to resolve your complaint, what they plan to do to resolve your complaint in the future, and when you can expect the complaint to be resolved. If you disagree with their conclusions or the steps they take to correct the issue, you can call or write to the Ministry of Long-Term Care and/or the Patients’ Ombudsperson.
For urgent cases of harm, neglect or danger to residents, you should call the Long-Term Care Family Support and Action Line and, in the case of abuse, the police.
Pain, Guilt, Anger and Depression: Waiting for Investigations and Next Steps
As the Ministry and/or the police investigate evidence of potentially serious harm to your loved one, it is natural to experience many emotions as you process your grief.
You may feel guilty that a decision you may have made (to place your loved one in a long-term care program) created the conditions for this abuse to occur. You may feel anger at the facility’s staff for causing or contributing to this harm, at the ministry or police for the pace of their investigations, or at yourself for not taking action sooner. And, you may experience depression if your sadness about what has transpired becomes so severe that it leads to feelings of hopelessness or despair.
There are a number of things you can do during these stages of grief. First, if you need professional support to work through your feelings, you might contact a grief counsellor, therapist or psychologist to ask about how they could help. Second, you might reach out to a nursing home negligence lawyer to speak about next steps.
At times, nursing home negligence lawyers may advise that you wait to file a civil lawsuit until formal complaints to the Ministry and/or police are resolved. However, there can be tasks to work on in the meantime. For example, we may ask you to request your loved one’s patient care/medical records for review in preparation of a civil claim. If our firm is retained, we do a full investigation with witnesses, identify experts, and review full medical records. Ultimately, we want to support you in getting accountability and justice for your loved one.
If the abuse your loved one has experienced is particularly egregious or possibly evidence of widespread abuse in the long-term care home, you may want to involve the news media or your Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) to publicize what has happened.
When a nursing home abuse lawsuit is filed, the time it takes to resolve these cases varies. Many settlements can occur within 2-3 years, but if the case goes to trial, the timeline is much longer.
It’s important to remember that grieving is a non-linear process. The stages of grief can be uneven or come in waves. Although the resolution of a lawsuit may ultimately bring you great satisfaction, the steps involved can bring up certain emotions. Waiting for it to conclude can be emotionally draining. As a lawyer with a practice focused on nursing home negligence, I do my utmost to be sensitive to my clients during this time and let them know about options they have to support their mental and physical health.
The Upward Turn, Reconstruction and Working Through, and Acceptance and Hope: Emerging from Grief
Although the conclusion of a nursing home abuse lawsuit often helps our clients pass through the more difficult stages of grief, simply working on aspects of the suit frequently coincides with the stages of grief that are a part of recovery.
A betrayal of trust and acts of harm by long-term care homes and staff can make you and/or your loved one feel out of control. Taking steps to process your feelings, including seeking a sense of justice with a lawsuit, frequently helps people to regain a sense of control and purpose.
If a case is not actionable, I am usually able to outline alternative options for the loved ones of a nursing home resident to take as they seek justice for their loved one. These include complaints to professional regulatory bodies that some staff members belong to, and working with the facility to ensure changes are made to protect other residents. At minimum, learning that a case is not appropriate for a lawsuit can provide closure to a family. Most of the time knowing that you’ve done everything you can on behalf of your loved one is enough to give you permission to move on with your life.
Hope Starts Here.
Reporting and filing a lawsuit for nursing home abuse often occurs at a time when a person is in the depths of grieving over what has happened to their loved one. Helping you take the first steps to climb out of this pit of despair is why we, at Howie, Sacks and Henry LLP, say “Hope Starts Here.”
My personal experience caring for a loved one who was harmed by a long-term care home inspired my professional practice. I understand some what you may be feeling, and I want to help in any way I can. Most of what we are seeing in terms of mistreatment, neglect or abuse is the result of deep, underlying systemic issues. This is why I engage in so much advocacy around these issues outside of court.
But individual lawsuits can spur positive change as we tackle the larger issues in our healthcare system. Everyone wants to see big changes immediately, but any journey always begins with a single step. Let us take those first steps together and support you on whatever path you take to reach justice.
To learn more about what our nursing home negligence lawyers can do for you, contact us for a free consultation.