As soon as I heard the news that Debbie Reynolds(link is external) had passed away from a stroke a day following her daughter, Carrie Fisher(link is external)’s death, so many things went through my mind. 

I can only imagine the level of grief and loss their family must be enduring at this time. I'd like to take this opportunity to extend my most sincere and deepest condolences to their family and friends.

Surprisingly, however, that wasn’t the first thought that crossed my mind. 

My thoughts went immediately to the role Carrie’s death most certainly played in her mother’s fatal stroke.

In the late 1960’s, Thomas Holmes & Richard Rahe, University of Washington School of Medicine, created a Social Readjustment Rating Scale(link is external) “to provide a standardized measure of the impact of a wide range of common stressors….  The Scale Each life event is assigned a value in arbitrary ‘life changing units’ chosen to reflect the relative amount of stress the event causes in the population studied.” 

This “Stress Assessment” continues to be validated by most mental healthexperts to this day.

The top stressors and their corresponding “life changing units” are as follows:

For Adults(link is external)

Death of a spouse (who was non-abusive(link is external)):  100

Divorce: 73

Marital separation: 65

Imprisonment: 63

Death of a close family member: 63

For Non-Adults(link is external)

Death of parent: 100

Unplanned pregnancy/abortion: 100

Getting married: 95

Divorce of parents: 90

Acquiring a visible deformity: 80

Researchers have confirmed(link is external) that the death of a marital partner is one of the most stressful Holmes-Rahe type life events any individual can experience, regardless of their cultural background. However, the death of a child can be equally stressful and impose the same level of adjustment demands. Research studies of people who lost a spouse or child in a car accident have found that a significant number of the bereaved individuals are distressed for as long as seven years after a sudden loss. Many experience depressionanxiety disorders, fatigue and loneliness (Burton, Westen & Kowalski, 2012). One Finnish study tracked more than 158 000 adults aged 35 to 84 years for a five year period after the death of a spouse. The researchers found that a high proportion were at a substantially increased risk for death from accidental, violent, and alcohol-related causes, heart disease and lung cancer. The risk was greater at short (< 6 months) rather than long durations of bereavement and among younger rather than older bereaved persons for most causes of death (Martikainen & Valkonen,1996).”

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In other words, since Debbie Reynolds divorced all three of her husbands(link is external), Carrie’s death may have been the event with the greatest number of “life changing units” she had ever experienced. 

A very similar thing occurred earlier this month to a couple I knew.  As a result of complications following a surgical procedure, the wife had to make the very difficult decision to remove her husband from life support and he died. The following day, while alone in her home, she suffered a fatal heart attack. 

Scenarios such as these don’t just occur in the movies, as in The Notebook(link is external).  That film ends with Noah (played by James Garner) and his wife, Allie (played by Gena Rowlands), dying together in her bed at a nursing home, after expressing their love for each other.   

It would be a mistake to believe that the stress of divorce doesn't also impact one's health. 

"Divorce and the death of a [non-abusive] spouse(link is external) frequently have long-term negative consequences for health, even in people who remarry, new research shows.

It is clear that a recent divorce or widowhood is associated with an increase in poor health and depression in the near term, but the new study is one of the first to examine its effects on health years and even decades later.

Compared to married people who had never been divorced or widowed, those who had were more likely to experience long-term health problems."

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As difficult as it may be for many to accept, “people are emotional beings(link is external), which is why businesses and politicians make a concerted effort appealing to people’s emotions.”

As can plainly be seen, for adults, the stress of a divorce comes second only to the death of a non-abusive spouse or the death of a child.  For people who are divorcing and who have never lost a child or non-abusive spouse to death, divorce is the single most stressful event they’ve experienced to date. 

This is a major difficulty for most people(link is external). And they are NOT at their best. Too often, lawyers assume their clients are rational and considered in providing instructions and receiving advice. This is a mistake. Assuming that your client will remember or understand advice during a relationship breakdown is a dangerous assumption for both the lawyer and the client. During high stress events, the human mind is prone to engaging its ‘fight or flight’ reflex – and this engagement of the amygdala portion of the brain actually interferes with the functioning of the cerebral cortex – the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. The net result is that clients will make decisions out of anger or fear, which may be irrational and contrary to their own self-interests – and as such, lawyers encountering clients need to understand this possibility and tailor their advice and their instructions accordingly.”

Although I’ve published many articles on this subject and I agree with the above-referenced information, I quoted from "(link is external)The 'Complete Lawyer(link is external)' – Family Law"(link is external) for a particular reason.  I take serious issue with his use of the term “empathy” in the following advice the presenter, Robert G. Harvie, gives:

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As such, when encountering a client with a family law difficulty(link is external), I would provide the following advice:

Do not allow ‘empathy’ to make your client's problem YOUR problem:

A client will be upset, angry, and distraught – and human nature is to want to make them feel better. This may lead to promises of outcomes or entitlements that cannot be delivered. Next thing you know, you're being reported to the law society or sued because you ‘promised’ them an outcome.

Family law is incredibly ‘equity’ driven. The discretion of the court in most areas, from parenting, to support issues, to division of assets generally results in very broad and largely unpredictable outcomes. When you provide an opinion to a client, be wary of ‘making them feel better’, and do your best to either advise them quite generally – making it clear there are no guarantees, or better yet, advice generally regarding the considerations that are taken into account, without providing even a range of outcomes. You can be quite certain a client given a range during a meeting, will leave with a perception of a ‘guarantee’ of the most positive possible outcome you discuss (see ‘getting sued’ above).

Worse yet, do not get emotionally embroiled in the client's problem. The amygdala exists in lawyers as well as clients, and too often I have seen good lawyers, lose perspective and their ability to provide prudent advice because their own anger and empathy kick in and they charge off on their white horse to do battle. Do not do this. You will negatively impact the quality of your advice, and, potentially your own emotional and physical health.”

Mark B. Baer, Esq. is a mediator, collaborative law practitioner, conflict resolution consultant, co-author of Putting Kids First in Divorce, and co-founder of Family Dynamics Assistance Center. He also regularly writes for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.