BY Dana L. Curtis, Attorney and Mediator
I believe loss, or fear of loss, and grief, or anticipatory grief, are present in most mediations. But in elder and adult family cases, they often exist at the heart of the conflict. By grief, I am referring to emotional experience in response to significant loss of any kind.
The most common and essential emotion associated with grief is sadness. It slows our biological systems, causing us to retreat from the day-to-day so we can focus inwardly, becoming more reflective and more detail-oriented. Facial expressions common to sadness signal our need for help and generate the desire in others to be supportive.
The opposites of sadness, anger and contempt, usually occur when we feel threatened or believe we have been treated unfairly. In measured doses, they embolden us and give us a sense of control and confidence in our ability to manage struggles with others as relations change. If anger is not prolonged, an angry response reduces stress hormones.
Angry parties often refuse offers that are clearly in their interests simply because their “enemies” proposed them.
But by the time most mediators meet grieving parties, their anger has outlived its intended purpose. Instead of enabling parties to take action in a constructive way, anger inhibits their ability to make good decisions. Angry parties often refuse offers that are clearly in their interests simply because their “enemies” proposed them.
When anger fails to resolve conflict, we get angrier, and anger may overshadow sadness. Not infrequently, warring siblings have expressed how a conflict, especially when it has escalated to litigation, has made it impossible for them to grieve.
Another grief-associated response is fear—fear of losing one’s financial security, physical wellbeing, or identity. Fear triggers the fight-or-flight response: our heart beats faster, blood pumps to our extremities and away from our brains and other internal organs, our muscles tense, and we breathe rapidly. Prolonged fear creates high levels of stress hormones that can induce harmful cardiovascular changes. Unlike sadness, which enables us to be reflective and responsive, fear results in reactivity.
When we make sense of offensive behavior or irrational negotiating positions, the urge to judge gives way to curiosity and understanding, or empathy – and a desire to help, or compassion.
Based on my experiences, I believe that mediators can benefit from the following:
Elder mediators need to be prepared to work with parties in the midst of loss. Developing skills to recognize and address the challenges of grief-associated emotions and cultivating personal qualities of empathy, compassion, and patience will help us better serve parties suffering from loss and grief – and better serve ourselves, too.