5 Stages of Grief Every Family Law Client (and Person) Should Know


            (SB) - Family law encompasses a wide range of issues, from divorce, child support, child custody, grandparent visitation, guardianships, adoptions, etc.  Lawyers, financial advisors, insurance agents, accountants, bankers, hairdressers – you name it – we all have clients who lean on us to listen and understand them if they are going through a family law case.  One of the best things I’ve learned and implemented into my legal practice is identifying and being mindful of my client’s stage of grief.  I’ve also learned that most settlements occur when both parties are at the final stage – acceptance.  If one party is in denial and the other party is simply angry, the chances of settlement are slim.  

     Whether you have a loved one, friend, or client who is in the midst of a family law matter (or any period of grief such as loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, or loss of a job), it will help you immensely to be aware of the five stages of grief.  The Swiss American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, was inducted to the American National Women’s Hall of Fame for her theory on these five stages:
     Many of my divorce clients start out in a stage of denial.  More often than not, one spouse is more ready for a divorce than the other, leaving the less prepared spouse in a state of disbelief and outright denial.  Denial can be a useful coping mechanism, as long as it doesn’t prevent the person from moving to the next stage.  
     Nearly all divorce clients I’ve encountered have experienced some level of anger during their divorce.  The client may be angry their marriage failed, their spouse is making things difficult, they’ll have a schedule as to when they spend time with their children, their spouse has moved on to another relationship – the reasons are endless.  At the end of the day, a client involved in a family law matter generally has the right to be angry.  Like denial, the anger stage is expected (and actually healthy) for the person’s eventual healing.  I recall a family law trial which took us three days to try.  Midway through the Judge spoke to the parents off the record and said, “Now that you’ve each had the opportunity to testify and speak your peace, you might try and settle this matter.”  The Judge’s point was clear – once people can release their anger and be heard, they’re in a better position to move forward.  
     People in the bargaining stage will try to undo the damage that’s been done. This stage is generally the result of the person feeling they’ve reached their emotional breaking point and just want life to get back to normal.  I’ve seen a few people in this stage reconcile and call off the divorce or modification case.  Most others, however, eventually progress to the next stage of emotion.
     A state of depression is to be expected for anyone involved in a divorce or child custody matter. People may find themselves unable to sleep, watching infomercials and eating Oreos well into the early morning hours.  It’s important for people to cry and talk through these emotions to anyone who will listen.  There is also nothing wrong with seeking professional counseling and guidance when battling depressive episodes.  I’ve recommended this to many clients and seen the person come out much stronger and happier.  
     This stage is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Here, people finally accept what is happening.  There will still be times of sadness, anger, etc., but a person who has reached the level of acceptance understands he or she is a survivor and life will go on – not as he or she originally imagined, but it will go on and there will still be many good times ahead.
     At the conclusion of most family law cases, I encourage my clients to capitalize on their fresh start; their new normal.  Clients should update their estate plans, work with their accountants, insurance agents, financial advisers, therapists, and other professionals to make this happen.
The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.  You should not act or rely on any information herein.