My client was deeply invested in keeping the teapot she and her husband had in their home for 25 years. She seriously wanted that old teapot. The collaborative team spent an hour at a 7-way financial meeting negotiating what she would give her husband in exchange for her keeping the teapot. At our debrief after the meeting, one of the attorneys was exasperated, asking “Why would anyone spend that much money negotiating about an old teapot when she will have plenty of money to buy a new one?”
It’s not about the teapot. It’s grief.
As a collaborative professional, I work with grieving people and so do you. You may be wondering, “Who died?”
The relationship did.
Our clients entered into their marriage picturing their future – maybe it involved having kids, buying a home, or having a partner to retire with. Divorce changes everything, and grief is a fellow traveler with divorce.
Not all clients are grieving, and some may even be relieved. This is about the clients who are angry, sad, upset easily, not sleeping, and forgetting things. In addition to the logistics of the divorce, part of the work of the collaborative team is to walk alongside our clients as they go through the loss of their relationship and the life they’ve been living. The attachment to their partner is broken. It’s truly very similar to a death.
You may be thinking “Okay, so these clients should just go to a therapist to deal with their grief.” That may be true, and at the same time we can all support our clients with their grief. By acknowledging and normalizing the feelings that come with grief, we connect with our clients. I believe the collaborative process is fueled by connection. In my experience, clients who feel supported emotionally by the team are more prepared to make the best decisions throughout their divorce process.
As professionals, we can help clients by recognizing that if a client is lagging behind on gathering documents, irritable with the other party or their team, forgetful, exhausted, and sad, we can understand that they are not at their best. Grief interferes with sleep, appetite, energy level, focus and mood. The underbelly of what looks like a difficult client may a heart full of sadness and despair about their marriage ending.
There are five stages of grief by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We know now that there is a sixth stage – meaning. This may sound strange, but clients can find meaning in the divorce and we can help illuminate opportunities for this. Some ways this might happen are they have time without the kids to go back to school, or they start volunteering at a peer run support group for divorced parents, or realize that without the friction in the home, they can parent more effectively and are closer to their children.
Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist said, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” When clients can find some meaning in their divorce (whether they want the divorce or not), it can help them work through the process. There is life after the suffering.
I imagine we are pretty empathetic people, or we wouldn’t be in this field. Taking that empathy, a step further by understanding what grief may look like, can help clients navigate their way through the collaborative process.
It’s not about the teapot.