Eemotional impact of separation and divorce leads to grief and trauma. That’s why its coined, as in other grief experiences, as an emotional roller coaster.
By Risa Ennis, Accredited Family Mediator
The emotional impact of separation and divorce from the client’s perspective is profound and it sends them into grief and sometimes trauma. Grief and trauma produce the most powerful of emotions. This is why divorce is coined, as in other grief experiences, as an “emotional roller coaster.” Our clients experience conflicting and very messy emotions that flood over them in an overwhelming manner.
Without being therapists and without crossing professional boundaries, as lawyers and mediators we can help the clients deal with their emotions by getting as comfortable as possible with the concepts of both grief and trauma in divorce. The clients really do appreciate this. It makes them feel they are not alone in this very surreal and terrifying time.
That is why I would like to talk about grief and trauma, to bring it out of the shadows and look at how this experience affects the way the clients engage in the divorce tasks.
What is grief? As Russell and James say in their Grief Recovery program, “grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder. Recovery from grief or loss is achieved by a series of small and correct action choices by the griever.”
Although grief is normal and natural, it is still the most neglected and misunderstood experience. Partly this is because we suffer from being a death, grief and trauma-defying society.
We run from grief because it is so miserable to live through. It makes us feel disempowered, vulnerable, out of control and we fear we may not be able to cope with the pain or worse, not be able to live with the aftermath of loss: acceptance of the reality of the situation.
Specifically, in divorce grief, it helps to understand the different grieving processes of the “leaver” and the “left” party.
The “leaver” may have difficult guilt, ambivalence, impatience, and fear of retribution, while the “left” may be in shock, disbelief, panic, shame, rage or perhaps looking for payback.
Even with a mutual agreement to end a relationship, there will still be a profound loss that has to be grieved.
When we think about dealing with one substantial loss as when we lose a loved one, it is an overwhelming and profound experience. In divorce grief, this griever has to cope with multiple losses simultaneously.
Some of these monumental losses include loss of a partner, loss of children 100% of the time, loss of family unit, loss of extended family and rituals, loss of financial security and future, loss of role as an in-law, loss of trust, self-esteem, “best years of one’s life,” and loss of a home to name just some.
Grief is not an intellectual experience but because of the voluminous amount of literature, we may tend to gravitate there because the intellectual sphere is safer than the emotional one. But grief is about a wounded heart.
So when supporting those grieving, we have to be careful not to put grief into a dry academic experience, especially by having an expectation that the clients will follow set stages of grief as the “norm.” Instead we have to help them ride through their own unique emotional waves until they achieve their own grief recovery, in their own ways.
Not every client goes through the exact stages to successfully grieve or needs to feel there is this prerequisite to do so. In fact, grief is very unique. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Clients greatly appreciate that we can acknowledge this.
However, understanding and reading about grief helps normalize this experience for clients so I give clients materials and also use the words “grief” and “trauma” right from the beginning. By naming and acknowledging their reality, I find they are better able to face the divorce tasks.
“Chronic grief” is the inability to successfully complete grief. Clients can become stuck, and may never regain a productive life. Some examples of chronic grief are when we see clients and others in our world that become depressed, feel worthless, feel victimized, are self-pitying, have anxiety disorders, physical and mental illnesses, substance abuse, high conflict couples and in some cases, we may see those that even abandon children that could remind them of their ex-spouses.
This is avoidable. Where we see potentially stuck clients, we definitely should alert them to finishing their grief work so they can regain a peaceful and productive life.
What is trauma as it relates to divorce clients? With trauma, it is not the event that causes emotional trauma but how it is experienced by the person. So trauma is a subjective experience.
Not everyone going through divorce will be traumatized but everyone going through divorce is grieving different losses in unique ways.
For most people, the experience that leads to divorce trauma has a few things in common: it was not expected, there was no way to prepare and there was nothing the person could do to prevent or predict it.
Trauma changes the person. Brain scan studies show that emotional trauma changes the brain’s structure and function.
Sadly, divorce trauma is rampant but is the least treated of all forms of trauma.
Traumatized clients may appear as being pathological so before any assumptions, remember that trauma can be responsible for behaviours that are not pathological or personality disorders.
Although at the beginning of separation, it appears that one’s world is falling apart, clients need to be reminded that divorce is extremely challenging but it is doable.
This message should be given regularly to anyone going through separation and divorce to give them calm, reassurance and hope. Clients respond much more positively when given a realistic yet hopeful message. They then can respond better to the tasks of divorce.
Because we are so task-oriented, we sometimes as professionals may forget the severity of divorce grief from the clients’ perspective because we are not living it. Divorce is second on the Famous Stress Scale, right after the death of a long-time spouse or child.
Just acknowledging this to the clients puts the experience in proper perspective so we can both agree that yes, it is miserable but there is good reason to feel this way and it will pass.
This perspective can also help them feel less alone, less afraid of their roller-coaster emotions and respected. This builds trust which starts their recovery.
We as mediators and lawyers do and should refer clients to appropriate mental health professionals but when they return, they are still going to be bringing the emotional divorce into the legal process. The two cannot be totally segregated because for clients to successfully grieve, they have to keep working through the emotions throughout.
So the clients need to know that we as mediators and lawyers are comfortable with their very uncomfortable aura of pain, loss and chaos. They will sense this by what we give off to them.
You do not have to have been divorced yourself but I believe if you have successfully recovered from grief, crises and traumas as a professional, your comfort level will be evident to the client and this will definitely create trust and start recovery.
This also leads to satisfying the long-term goal of keeping the best interests of the children paramount where parents will then be at their best to go forward as functional adults, parents and co-parents and will rarely return to us.
So with this backdrop of talking about grief and trauma, knowing that the clients enter our offices already feeling disempowered, debilitated, wounded and terrified, we ask them to undertake monumental divorce tasks which they are usually not at all prepared to tackle because for most clients, their grieving process has not reached its resolution – in fact, they are just starting this process.
What are these divorce tasks?
1. Choosing the process and professionals
We may not realize this but in speaking to many clients, this task is highly overwhelming. Many clients have negative feelings about the process, costs, step, even what options are best for them, and especially agreeing with their spouses on a mutually agreeable process. I have been told repeatedly this task is agonizing and terrifying for many clients. I speak directly to the clients in the first call and try to calm them right away as I put myself in their shoes.
2. Setting up a Parenting Plan
For so many clients, the children’s issues are the most traumatic and emotional piece because there has to be the heart-wrenching acceptance that the children now will not be with them 100% of the time in most cases anymore. This is the work I do in helping clients grieve this loss as well as handle the trauma that many clients experience.
3. Co-Parenting and Emotional Impact Of Separation And Divorce
Sometimes we set unrealistic expectations for the clients early on about what co-parenting should look like. We alert our clients to the literature about “cooperative co-parenting.” Sometimes the link between cooperative co-parenting being the consequence of successful grieving gets lost on everyone and the clients do not see how they can ever get there. In fact, if they know this, they may feel less panicked and despairing at the concept of co-parenting, thereby giving this very challenging relationship a chance for success. We need to help the clients understand this will take time and work to do and help them not get overwhelmed initially with this monumental, long-term task. Especially we should ward against not shaming the clients by telling them they will be seen as “bad” or “non- child-focused” if they do not follow this new way of being. Co-parenting is leaving the old marital intimate dynamic and entering a non-intimate distanced but joint responsibility dynamic. Even for the best of grievers, this is extremely challenging. As one client told me, the answer for achieving this task is to just have a lobotomy. For some clients who have grieved the end of the marriage while still in it, making this shift in thinking and being is much easier, as they have already grieved significantly before physically separating.
4. Financial Agreement
The potential losses of income, savings and financial goals can be shattering, even becoming traumatic. This is why bringing in skilled facilitators to keep the emotional climate safe and effective is crucial for everyone’s well-being, including the children long-term. There is an overlap in issues between the parenting plan and the financial plan which gets complicated at times. Resistance, incomplete disclosures and aggression are par for the course here especially where unresolved grief looms large.
5. Shifts in Role Expectations
Whether traditional or non-traditional roles have been the pattern before the separation, now, both mom and dad have to look at a shift in these roles, whether they like it or not. The mom who is the “left” spouse feels they have been given two pink slips – losing the marriage and role as homemaker, and then having to create income for the first time in many cases. While unresolved grief is still high, this shift can create panic and paralysis. It can be traumatic for some moms. Dads typically are very keen on assuming more childcare responsibilities and see this as a plus, where moms see this as a huge loss. For the dads who have been very involved throughout the marriage, their feelings of fear, doubt, dread and panic regarding the potential loss of their bonds with their children can be equally overwhelming for them as they are for moms. Both mom and dad may become so fear-based over the potential of how the role shifts will affect their lives that they can become anywhere from depressed to quite litigious. This is why creating parenting plans that allay these fear-based feelings can greatly help both parents begin to see that post-separation life is doable.
6. Emotional Impact Of Separation And Divorce: Trust in Process and Professionals
As professionals, we each create our own unique ways to earn trust. I believe clients perceive your comfort level with grief as a huge piece of building trust for them along with feeling you care about them. Clients frequently say that many professionals do not care and lack compassion, do not get it or may be conned by abusers. This intensifies the terror/despair they feel. Some clients will not be able to develop trust and sometimes this is due not because of trauma or grief but because some clients just are vindictive, mean-spirited and vengeful by nature. No matter how much the professional tries to earn trust and prove their pure intentions, nothing may ever be good enough for them if the professional ever challenges them, especially regarding reminding them that the one they wish to fight with is the other parent of their children. This can be seen as treason by some clients. Where there is trust, professionals must try to prevent a client from later feeling betrayed by their own emotionality. The professionals must assess whether the agreements the clients are making are solid ones without belittling their dignity. With trust, the clients will definitely listen and welcome your objectivity. When new steps need to be taken in the process, like a custody assessment, forensic evaluation or psychological assessment, the clients can become very anxious and angry regarding new costs, new professionals and delays in completion. Calm, clear and supportive explanations need to be given. Many clients have shared they do not feel informed and this can greatly minimize the anxiety about new steps and also in maintaining trust in the process and professionals. Being firm and honest builds trust too with clients. Although they may resist they usually come back to understanding that you are being child-focused and honest instead of you just being their voice and saying what they want to hear.
7. Accepting the Family Law System for what it is
Clients perceive the system will be child-focused and fair or perceive it as being corrupt. Clients appreciate a truthful expert opinion if they trust you so they can let go of unrealistic expectations of what the system can and cannot do. Those who persist in not heeding the warnings of ethical lawyers are usually those not fully grieved or those who have aggressive personalities. There are those clients who have known or suspected personality disorders which further complicate their abilities to grieve and complete any of the divorce tasks successfully. Obviously where miscarriages of justice occur, there will be bitterness, despair, betrayal and profound loneliness. And this is on top of unresolved grief. Acceptance of what the system can do is a huge task, as is acceptance of all the divorce tasks.
Although I am continually asked how I do this work and if it is not too emotionally draining, I believe that when I do see the transformation from the emotional roller coaster to grief resolution, it is emotionally inspiring and I am grateful that the clients have allowed me to share this sacred time with them.
Risa Ennis, B.A., PPE (Cert), AccFM (OAFM), M.A., from Family Mediation and Counselling Services of Toronto, Ont., is an Accredited Family Mediator, Certified Parent Educator, Pastoral Counsellor, Grief and Bereavement Educator, Collaborative Professional and Parent Coordinator. www.risaennisfamilymediation.com.