Some Thoughts on Ghosts and the Law

By A. Daniel Spencer

     Today is Halloween, a day in which people celebrate hauntings, ghouls and ghosts. But in family law, hauntings can take on a different character. For someone going through a divorce or family conflict, or who has recently been divorced or separated, ghosts are everywhere. They attach themselves to personal belongings, places, even entire chapters of our lives. The grief over the loss of a relationship is not unlike the grief over a death, and the happy memories of times spent with that person, or of gifts and souvenirs from that person, becomes tainted with the loss. For someone who has recently gone through a breakup or divorce, their residence becomes a haunted house, with the spirits of lost times and places lying in wait to seize at their heart or stab them in the gut.

      Ghosts are real, and their presence drives bitter resentment and animosity in the legal proceedings that follow their creation. It is hard for the afflicted to resist masking their grief and loneliness by lashing out at these ghosts; to stand defiant in their faces. But as any grief counselor will tell you, channeling feelings of loss into anger can be destructive and all-consuming.

       As a divorce attorney, I speak with people every day who bear the scars of custody battles, marital property feuds, and thoughtless recriminations. I counsel those who meet with me to not get swept up in the fight, and to try to be mindful of the difference between legal problems and emotional ones. Parties to legal proceedings who are driven by emotions like anger and suspicion cannot truly be happy with the result, because winning in court does not banish the ghosts that haunt their lives. Vicious, aggressive litigation transforms mournful spirits into poltergeists. This is why I do tell potential clients who want an aggressive “pit-bull” attorney to look elsewhere: I am not interested in promoting conflict. Divorce always leaves scars, but it is litigation rife with suspicion, recriminations, and hatred that truly destroys families.

      Attorneys serve arguably their most important role when they act as dispassionate legal counselors for “haunted” clients. At the same time, the fact that clients are constantly assailed by the ghosts of love lost should not be ignored. This is especially true where children are involved. Attorneys must work with therapists, mediators, and other professionals while they oversee the legal disentanglement of two or more lives, in order to ensure that the ghosts that stalk their clients are properly put to rest.

      We must remember that attorneys are counselors at law, not mental health counselors (or ghostbusters). If you are going through a breakup or divorce, or other traumatic legal event, please consider seeking help from a trained mental health professional. Many providers accept Medicaid, in addition to other forms of insurance, and beginning work on the healing process early can help you enjoy the positive outcomes at the end of an excruciating process.

      For a directory of mental health providers in your area, check with your insurance provider, or the United Way 2-1-1 services at www.211now.org or dial 211 from any phone.