One of my most memorable mediated divorces was with Dinah. She lived in a small migrant community. She had been married to her husband, Cameron, more than 10 years. Cameron and Dinah shared three very young children. Dinah spoke virtually no English. Although Cameron and Dinah were from the same ethnic community, Cameron was proficient in English.
Initial trauma of divorce
During her initial call to our office, our paralegal gathered information from Dinah with the assistance of an interpreter. Dinah could be heard throughout the office suite on that phone call. She was wailing, crying uncontrollably. Her husband had filed for divorce. She was confused, helpless, and devastated. What we all came to understand later about Dinah’s pain was that culturally, and according to their traditional customs, her life as a woman was over if she had no husband.
I was not exactly excited about jumping into a divorce case so soon after the case that nearly retired me as a family lawyer. It had only been a month or two since we settled the Beauty Queen’s case. I was still raw and somewhat traumatized from working with an overly emotional and unrealistic client. However, I was drawn to Dinah’s pain. Her suffering tugged at my own humanity. I wanted to hug her, help her. For me, the fact that she did not speak English and had been drawn into a confusing legal process compelled me to take her case.
The first time we met in my office, Dinah nearly emptied the box of tissues on my desk. She was grieved, utterly hopeless. She was so embarrassed because rumor had it that her husband left her for the town whore. How could this be happening? And worse, Dinah’s parents were in no financial position to bring her and the children back to their home country to live. She worked a part-time fast food gig, and did not make nearly enough to care for herself and the children. The fact that she spoke no English presented a daunting barrier to her economic prospects. She was very religious, and had been a loving and faithful wife. She was willing to work things out, to prevent the divorce. Dinah was so frail, so wounded by her circumstances, the mention of “divorce” sent her into a loud, agonizing fit of crying and desperate pleas to save her marriage. However, for her husband, Cameron, his decision had already been made. Reconciliation was not an option.
Informal negotiation and client support
Fortunately, the attorney representing Cameron was a very reasonable attorney. Like myself, Cameron’s attorney was a practical person. He was very likeable, and more interested in finding a reasonable agreement than he was focused on billing his client for lengthy and expensive trial preparation. However, family law was not his primary practice area. Although I was newer to family litigation myself, I took the lead guiding the conversation with respect to Dinah’s financial needs and Cameron’s ability to support her while she gained her bearings. Our discussions with opposing counsel had been going in a good direction already. However, it seemed Cameron’s attorney was unable to make concessions. I believe what was slowing down our progress towards settlement was the attorney’s lack of family law experience (he was primarily a bankruptcy and civil attorney). When an attorney lacks sufficient family law expertise, the attorney cannot effectively educate their client how the law interprets the situation, and how a judge would likely decide their differences. While we were somewhat at a stalemate on a few issues, the court ordered mediation. Thankfully, mediation was a great fit for this couple and extremely helpful to bring experienced perspective into the conversation.
From day one of accepting her case, my team and I worked with Dinah through the practical realities of divorce. In a matter of months, we helped Dinah plan. We talked about her budget. We discussed the children’s activities. We considered steps she could take to wean herself from depending so heavily on Cameron’s income. Unlike the Beauty Queen I recently represented, Dinah did not want to destroy Cameron. She was confronted with a divorce she never wanted. But if she had to go through divorce, her only demand was that Cameron be fair, and that she and her children not be left destitute in a foreign country where she had no support system. As the months passed, she became less triggered, more accepting of her situation. We witnessed her regaining control as we walked her through the process and empowered her to make choices for her own sake and for her children’s future.
Dinah entered the courthouse in a gorgeous traditional garment from her home country. Compared to the first day we met, she was composed, and determined to have courage. Naturally, she was nervous about what the process would be like. However, she had been very thoughtful about her goals and Cameron’s own limitations we had already discussed through Cameron’s attorney. She had obviously prepared herself to stop being helpless for the moment. She was brave.
We had an excellent mediator. In order to protect my client, I explained to the mediator some of the cultural issues I learned through my representation of Dinah. I asked for the mediator to be sensitive, and to understand that it was very likely we would need to take breaks should Dinah become overwhelmed by the process. To facilitate open and honest communication with the mediator, Cameron and his attorney were in one room. Dinah, her interpreter and I were in a separate room. Because I was a newer associate to the litigation side of our team, my supervising attorney was also present to assist me. As we continued to make progress, reaching agreement with Cameron, the weight of it all suddenly hit her: the divorce was suddenly very REAL…she was actually going to be without a husband.
Dinah lost it. She deteriorated from the brave, capable woman I greeted in the hallway, to the helpless, lost lady I first met in my office. I asked the mediator to leave our room, to give Dinah space while I sensed the meltdown looming. Once the mediator left the room, Dinah erupted into an uncontrollable fit of grief. I looked to my supervisor for guidance–What am I supposed to do?. My supervisor was also taken aback, and for a moment, we both froze. Since I was already sitting right next to Dinah, and since there was no rule book in law school how to console a grieving wife, I wrapped my arms around her. She continued to sob desperately, the floodgates of her pain overflowing in waves of unrelenting sorrow. Through her sobbing, she yelled words that I could not understand. She stained my blazer with her tears. The only thing I knew to do–that I could do–was hold her. She needed this moment. She needed to allow her very soul to express itself. I needed to simply support her through it.
Once I sensed her consolation, I let her go. I looked at her and smiled. I told her she was beautiful. I told her life was not ending for her. I pointed to her beautiful garment and expressed my admiration for her style. Suddenly she stopped crying. In her broken English, she asked me if I liked her garment.
“Of course I do, it’s beautiful…and so are you.”
That was the last tear Dinah shared with me. After four hours of mediation, we reached a comprehensive, thoughtful, and fair agreement. There was a path forward for my client. She could now see how the children’s needs would be provided for. Cameron was satisfied that we placed parameters and limitations on his financial obligations to Dinah. He was not trying to abandon her or the children. He never explained his reason for wanting the divorce. But he certainly did not want to see his children in lack because he had chosen a different path. Dinah did not expect to always depend on Cameron’s support. She had already taken measures to learn English, which is why our small exchange was comprehensible. She just needed to know there was life after divorce and that she was not alone.
I love you Charly
About a month after Dinah’s divorce was finalized, I was paged by the receptionist. I had an unexpected visitor. It was Dinah. I welcomed her into my office, so happy to see her. She was beaming. She looked like a person who just lost 100 pounds of emotional weight. She had a bag that she sat on my desk. Quickly, she reached into the bag, removed a garment, and held it up to my body to eyeball its fit. I was shocked. I tried to refuse the gift–oh my goodness, am I violating an ethical rule? The garment was obviously of some value more than our $5 gift policy. Dinah nodded to herself, pleased the garment would fit. Expecting my protest, she placed the garment back into the bag as quickly as she had taken it out. She hugged me quickly and ran out of my office, down the hallway, and out of our suite. As she ran out, she left me with one final thought, “I love you, Charly.”
The garment was a beautiful 3-piece set in the traditional fashion of Dinah’s community. And yes, it was a perfect fit.
Years after her divorce, we never received a complaint from Dinah regarding the support or visitation arrangement we worked out. In my line of work, no news is almost always good news. And for this family, the legal system and its professionals definitely got it right.
From the attorney who hugs,