Pandemic Relationships

Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic

Kindness and compassion in times of fear and uncertainty

Uncertainty caused by the pandemic can bring stress, fear, even panic.  Tania Perlin offers tips for self-care and compassion that can ease our anxiety and help us manage our lives.In the eye of the storm

Two weeks ago, I listened with disbelief to the news that schools will remain closed after March Break, and then with a further shock that many courts would be closed until further notice. The continuous news feed, telling us to stay home, social distance from others, and close businesses are creating palpable fear.

The knee jerk reaction for most of us is to panic. Our clients are scrambling to get their mediation dates pushed up, asking if we can do remote mediations. Parties are calling lawyers and paralegals asking for advice regarding emergency matters and court hearings. Those involved in family litigation are very concerned that their motions for custody, spousal support, and other pressing issues will not be heard for an indefinite period of time.

The stress of these uncertain times is greatly multiplied for those going through the litigation process. Litigation itself encompasses and swallows one’s life in a cloud of uncertainty and darkness. It causes parties to literally put their lives on hold, sometimes for years. It depletes mental and physical energy, finances, and at times, hope. Each litigant knows that feeling of hopefulness when heading to court for a motion or hearing, the hope that maybe today will be the end of this hell and life can return to normal, only to exit the courthouse feeling dejected and hopeless, as the wheels of the process turn at a very slow pace.

On top of this daily reality faced by litigants, current court closures and restrictions have added a whole new dimension to the seemingly endless litigation journey.

Reframing and taking control

My parents came to Canada as refugees from the former Soviet Union.

In order to get here, they went through many difficulties, from religious persecution to indefinite waiting in refugee hubs, not knowing what awaited them. They left everything they knew in order to ensure freedom for their children.  The lesson that they imparted to me was to stay in the moment. No matter how uncertain life seems, focus on what’s in front of you.

My parents chose to control what they could and let go of things they could not. It was not easy, but it helped them survive.

The present situation may seem very dark, especially for litigants who are waiting to resolve family law cases where children are involved. However, I would suggest reframing current events and finding purpose within the havoc.

For once, everyone is in the same boat. For the first time, all litigants are facing the same closures and delays, which are unaffected by one’s ability to hire a lawyer.

We cannot control the 24/7 news feed, other people’s behavior, government directives, court, and other closures, or COVID-19 itself. What we can control is ourselves. We can be accommodating to other litigants, and help find alternative ways to resolve cases. If courts are closed, private mediations are still available through video conferencing. Talking to the other side about settlement and perhaps coming to an interim agreement, which could become a final one.

Recognizing that in one moment, everything can change gives us a different perspective on what is really important in our lives, and what we want to accomplish through the litigation process. Fostering kindness and compassion will serve all of us well, even after the current crisis is over.

Taking action

If your dispute is not one that lends itself to mediation or out of court settlement, I would encourage you to deal with fear and uncertainty in other pragmatic ways. Court closures and getting cases heard is something that you can’t control. We know that our minds tend to create doomsday scenarios that add to the stress of litigation.

Here are some practical ways to help deal with fearful thoughts. (These techniques may also help manage stress during litigation.)

  • Consider reducing your news consumption. The fear and panic created by the continuous newsfeed are affecting mental health and exacerbating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
  • Every time you have a fearful thought, say the word STOP; then bring yourself to the present moment. Look around you and find five things you can see, four things you can smell, three things you can touch (following social distancing and safety directives, of course), two things you can taste, and one thing you can feel. You can then say to yourself, “Even though it’s stressful not knowing when I will get to resolve this case, I cannot control this. I can either use this time to live in fear and panic, or I can use this time to do something positive for me.” Read a book, catch up on work, do a craft, spend time with family, etc.
  • A good way to combat fearful thoughts and anxiety is to do something for someone else. You can still video chat with someone who may need to see a friendly face. Or you could text or email those who are alone and would love words of encouragement. Some of my clients have created video group calls while they talk and eat lunch from their respective homes.
  • Walking in nature, yoga, tai chi, dancing, or any other physical activity that takes your mind away from ruminating thoughts, recharges, and energizes the mind and body.
  • Meditation also gives your mind a break from ruminating thoughts and lets your body and mind recharge. There are numerous meditations on YouTube for all levels of expertise, which are very helpful for those wanting to start a meditation practice.
  • Your practice does not have to involve sitting in a lotus position for a long time. It could be as easy as focusing on relaxing music for a little while and bringing your focus back to the music every time your mind wanders.
  • Measured breathing is a great way to reduce uncomfortable bodily sensations. For example: take a belly breath (diaphragm breathing) to a count of 4, hold to a count of 5, then release to a count of 6.
  • Doing this a few times will send a message to your body that all is well and will create a calming effect. You can find diaphragm breathing demonstrations on YouTube.

Patience is hard to cultivate when all you want to do is get this ordeal over with. In time, life will get back to normal, but meanwhile, we can all do our part by fostering kindness, compassion, accommodation, and love toward our fellow human beings. Remember: this too shall pass. We have the potential to come out of this storm a better, stronger, kinder, and healthier society. It’s all up to us.

Tania Perlin, Toronto, Canada

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Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic

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