The mourning process and succession mediation

Author: Agnieszka Olszewska

When asking people in conflicts or professionals working with them, what makes them unable to get out of the deadlock, they usually tell that the problem are strong, negative emotions. In inheritance cases we deal with important, long-term bonds, often with interdependence of parties’ which is characteristic for family cases, and the overlapping process of heirs emotional mourning.. Those are the reasons why the influence of emotions on the mediation process can be particularly important.

The knowledge about the emotional process of mourning is required by the mediator working in the field of succession cases because of two reasons. Firstly, mediator should understand what is happening between the parties’, he should be able to refer to the general regularities observed in this field and according to them, to assess whether parties’ are capable and ready to take part in negotiations; meaning, can they represent their needs and are they able to judge rationally the situation and the possible solutions presented during the mediations. Secondly, mediator should be able to understand and be able to predict what influence the loss and process of mourning has on negotiations in which family members take part.

The skill of working with strong emotions experienced by parties, involves understanding the mechanism of their emergence, their function and their role in the process of negotiating solutions. The mediator (in international succession cases) faces a challenge of recognizing emotions and including them to the process, at the same time having in mind the goal of the process, which is the accomplishment of lasting, acceptable agreement, which in turn can make recovery of wellbeing and cooperation of family members possible.

Everything which bears the mark of sense of loss of someone or something can lead to mourning. It can concern divorce, losing a chance to have a child, not achieving a promotion, getting retired, being fired. There are no two people who will experience the loss of a close relative exactly the same way. Personal feelings, the nature of the lost relationship, age in which you deal with loss or the living conditions make the way of experiencing the feeling of loss in an individual way. Based on a five-stage model of patient’s reaction to the information about the incurable illness and close perspective of death developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross[1], we can describe with some accuracy emotional states which are characteristic to mourning. The first emotion is denial and repression. The second stage is anger towards self, having a form of sense of guilt and anger towards others and the world itself, expressed by rebellious and aggressive behaviour. It could also take form of looking for the guilty one, claims to the family members, outbursts of aggression, irritability, redundancy of reactions. The stage of anger is natural and has a number of important psychological functions. On one hand it gives energy to act and protects from feelings of chaos, disorientation and sadness for which the person isn’t ready. Very often on this stage the conflict between family members emerge, which in this context is a result of a natural process of mourning. After rebellion and anger comes the process of bargaining (negotiations). It is a phase of transition and orientation, looking for continuity, building a bridge between the past, the present and the future. Important, existential questions about meaning of life, meaning of death and life after the loss appear.  The last phase is depression and melancholy is characterised by regression, sadness, symptoms of depression. Living through  sadness, mourning the loss allows slowly to think about the future and to accepting the loss.

Mediator, like many other professionals helping the family in a difficult time after the death of a relative, should be prepared to this process, psychologically also. During the mediation process, mediator can use his knowledge of dealing with loss to normalize the mourning process – show what behaviours are natural, lowering the emotional tension of parties’, to build mutual understanding of each person’s emotional reactions and their impact on relationships or different needs discovered during the process of negotiating the succession and be the first source of psychoeducational information, for example concerning accompanying a mourning person, especially kids, being support and building sense of confidence of both parties’ and be attentive to symptoms which indicate that the specialist psychological support is needed.

Death of a family member cause changes in a whole family. Family members can get closer or more distant to each other. It also activates earliest experiences from the family of origin; past which has formed us for whole our lives. Each of the family members was connected with the deceased by a different relationship and had a different meaning for him. That is one of the reasons why each person deals with loss and sadness differently. This differences can cause conflicts  instead of closeness and support, isolate instead of unifying. Between siblings there can be tension around what kind of relationship each of them had with the deceased parent, how they have shared duties connected with caring and death.  They can also have big expectations connected with brothers or sisters love and expect from siblings special caring in a situation where everyone needs it equally and it is hard to address every person’s needs.

As the Flemish proverb says: “As long as we don’t share inheritance, we don’t know how family relationships really look like”. Process of negotiations in succession cases is at the same time a process of settling the past, which is mirrored by financial and material arrangements. This settling of past is a process of concluding relationship in terms of exchange: “who took what for himself”, “who gave something from himself”, “who got something” and “what did not he get” from the other family members. It is much more complicated than for example settling matters after the divorce, because it involves many more persons, which form a complex system of interdependencies.       So the   fight around the inheritance is often not about material values but rather a spiritual legacy of parents, the inherited aspects of personality, hidden goals, visions and ideals.  When facing the negotiation deadlock connected with divergent or significantly different expectations, mediator is confronted with a task of understanding their essence, their roots.  Discovering and naming ones needs enables better understanding of oneself and to hear, understand and acknowledge needs of others. This process is aimed at building mutual understanding, psychological and procedural satisfaction and it often unlocks negotiations at the material level.

Death is the end of life but not the end of relationship. Parents and other deceased and relationships with them stay with us, the living. Splitting the assets is a process of accepting the change, it is a chance to face the past, even debts and making a new, dignified family reality.

The knowledge about emotional process of dealing with loss is a resource for a mediator, which gives him the orientation and the feeling of competence and allows to lead the process of negotiations  consciously, thus increasing chances of achieving a good, lasting agreement between parties’.


Kübler-Ross, E., On death and dying. Routledge, 1973

Keirse, M., Helpen bij verlies en verdriet: een gids voor het gezin en de hulpverlener. Lannoo Meulenhoff-Belgium, (2017).

Moore, Ch. W., The Mediation Process: Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict (4th edition), Jossey-Bass, (2014)


[1] Kübler-Ross, E. (1973). On death and dying. Routledge.


About the Author:

Mediator, psychoeducation trainer, member of the Family Mediators Association. Specialized in cross-border/cross-cultural mediation, she completed training in International Family Mediation, TIM Brussels 2011. From 2007 she has been working in the field of integration of foreigners in Poland. She makes part of the team of the EU-funded project Fomento.