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By Oliver Ross, JD*, PhD
Early on in my career as a mediator it became apparent that grief is endemic to divorce. I realized that sooner or later virtually everyone going through divorce is to a lesser or greater extent bound to experience the stages of grief common to the loss of their marriage: denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and acceptance. It also became apparent that children grieve when their parents’ divorce:
“With divorce come many changes for children. There are changes in the daily schedule, family structure, living arrangements, and plans for the future. Children suffer the loss of social status and possessions, as well as relationships with friend and extended family. A natural reaction to any loss is grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) made famous the stages of grief and loss in her work on death and dying. These stages of grief are helpful when considering divorce from your children’s point of view.” ¹
Notwithstanding the apparentness of grief being intrinsic to divorce, to this day the traditional approach to mediation used by most courts and attorneys largely disregards the anger, sadness and other emotions common to this grief. The unfortunate reality is that the legal system has been and continues to be ill-equipped to deal with these emotions.
The Situational approach, on the other hand, includes specific ways for a divorce mediator to skillfully acknowledge and normalize these emotions as well as create opportunities for clients to appropriately express them – not for the purpose of engaging in psychotherapy, but rather so that clients can at least temporarily put their grief aside and engage in the problem-solving needed to make informed decisions about their legal, financial, and co-parenting matters.
For example, in the “Getting Current” stage of the Situational approach (which usually occurs in the first hour of mediation), each parent is encouraged to share their concerns if not worries or fears about the children. In addition, Situational mediators encourage parents to be very vigilant about any unusual behavior by their children (for instance, bed-wetting, trouble at school, withdrawal from friends or favorite activities, frequent lack of appetite, and recurrent angry or violent outbursts) and to inform the children’s teachers of the divorce so they can watch out for and report any signs of distress. We also encourage parents to consider involving their children in brief therapy with a mental health professional that regularly treats children and adolescents. Indeed, we provide all of our divorce mediation clients with a list of these mental health professionals (along with other professionals such as family law attorneys, accountants, and appraisers).
The Situational approach also includes specific ways for a divorce mediator to educate parents about the grief typically experienced by children of divorce. For instance, Situational mediators make it clear that while they are impartial when it comes to the parents’ respective rights and interests, they are advocates for children. They explain that one of the major rewards we derive from being a Situational mediator is to not only save parents from the antagonism typical of the court system, but also to save the children – who usually have far fewer coping mechanisms to deal with the substantial stress and strain that is likely to result from that system.
Finally, Situational mediators emphasize the importance of a parent’s role in influencing the depth and duration of the grief that their children will experience as a result of their parents’ divorce. Ultimately, none of us have control over what anyone else thinks, feels, or does, including our children; however we certainly can influence them. This is why we strongly suggest that parents read the child-related literature we provide them at the beginning of mediation, and otherwise become familiar with the grief process in general and, in particular, what they can do to diminish its long-term psychological and behavioral effects on their children.
Oliver Ross, JD*, PhD is the founder of Out-of-Court Solutions® (www.outofcourtsolutions.com), a divorce mediation firm. Dr. Ross practiced law and then psychology in *California, and since moving to Arizona in 1994 has mediated over 1400 divorce and post-divorce matters. His book, “Situational Mediation: Sensible Conflict Resolution” (Issues Press Publishers, 2003), has received wide acclaim.
¹ iA Child’s View of Divorce, by Dianne D. Sasser, PhD; ©2012