Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Grieving Process And Divorce: How To Recognize The Stages And Help Your Clients

By Jennifer L. Mockler

Family law practitioners are exposed to a wide array of issues, including divorce, timesharing, child support, and various others. There are many emotions that are involved in family law cases, and it is very important that practitioners are able to understand and manage their clients.  Divorce is one of the most stressful life events an individual can experience, and it involves a process similar to those grieving the loss of a loved one. 

In her book "On Death and Dying," Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages an individual goes through when grieving loss. She based her experiences with terminally ill people and later expanded her theory to apply to people experiencing any form of personal loss. These stages can be experienced in any order, and not all individuals will experience each stage. The end result, however, is the same for most people. It involves healing, which ultimately leads to growth and renewal. 

Denial is a common first response that individuals experience. In family law cases, more often than not, one spouse is more ready for a divorce than the other, leaving the other spouse in a state of disbelief and denial. Your client may be filled with feelings of shock, confusion, and low self-esteem.

Anger is a common response, and many of your clients will experience some level of anger during their divorce. Your client may be angry their marriage failed, that their spouse is making things difficult, that they will have to share their time with their children, that their spouse has moved on to another relationship, etc. Your client may be filled with feelings of blame, hurt, and bitterness.

Bargaining is the stage in which clients will try to undo the damage that has been done. This stage is generally the result of the person feeling that he or she has reached the emotional breaking point and just wants to get life back to normal. Some clients in this stage may attempt to reconcile and call off the divorce, while others will progress to the next stage.

Depression is expected for clients involved in a divorce or child custody dispute. They may find themselves unable to sleep or work. Clients may have feelings of loss, loneliness, emptiness, and isolation during this stage.

Acceptance is considered the light at the end of the tunnel. In this stage, clients accept what has happened, and they are ready to co-parent. There may be times of sadness or anger, but your client is ready to move on and plan for the future.

It is important as family law practitioners to help your clients recognize that grieving is a natural reaction to divorce. Setting clear expectations with your clients will help them move through the divorce process efficiently and in a healthy manner. If you find that your client appears to be “stuck” in a stage and not progressing, referral to a mental health practitioner may be necessary.