Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 8:05 pm | Fair 51º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 14)

Tragic death of the family dog presents at least two learning opportunities

Dear Nick and Nora,

This letter was going to be about the F-word — fair or fairness. That subject has to wait until the next letter, because I must first acknowledge your loss. I’ll add some additional notes at

Although your dog, Butch, and I did not have a positive relationship, I know that each of you loved him. The death of a pet can be just as traumatic as the death of a person — and sometimes more so. There are psychotherapists who specialize in helping people cope with the loss of a beloved pet. I hope you don’t try to trivialize or avoid feeling the loss because it seems inappropriate. I’ve had the honor of observing people cope with grief and loss for the past 30 years; I know that an attempt to stifle it never works in the long run.

You gave me similar accounts of the incident, and I’m going to record here the conversation you two had the day Butch died, along with a conversation Nora later had with her lawyer. Seeing in black and white what’s been said may help prevent you from confusing the grief resulting from the death of your dog with the grief inherent in the divorce process. It might also help you avoid confusing the legal issues you will have to resolve in the future, and the legal issues you have pending before the court right now, with the psychological issues that are the source of both.

On the day of the accident, Nora was walking out of a store toward her car in the parking lot with her arms full of groceries. She saw Nick driving into the lot. As usual, Butch was in the seat behind the driver with his head out the window. Nora looked directly at Nick, as though to say something to him, and then said in a loud voice, “Butchie!” Hearing his name spoken in Nora’s voice, Butch was able to squeeze out the back window and jump onto the parking lot. He ran for Nora but was hit and immediately killed by a vehicle coming into the lot. As the horrified driver moved her car carefully out of the way, Nick jumped out of his car and began walking toward Nora.

When they were equidistant from Butch’s body, Nick said, “This is so like you, Nora. You simply couldn’t stand seeing Butch with me. You called him to be with you and now he’s dead. What else do you plan to kill before this thing is over, you (expletive deleted)?”

Nora replied, “Me? You think I’m the one responsible for killing our dog? You stupid (expletive deleted). I wasn’t driving around with the dog in the backseat and the window open enough so he could jump out. I didn’t call him. I acknowledged him, and apparently he preferred being with me over being in the car with you.”

Nick responded, “You most certainly did call him to you, and we’ve always let him have the window open as wide as it is now. He squeezed out because you ordered him to leave the car and go to you. This is your mess, and you can tend to it.” He turned and walked to his car.

Nora yelled, “You’ll hear from my lawyer on this.” Nick yelled back, “Grow up, Nora.”

As she watched Nick leave the parking lot, Nora realized she had been left to deal with Butch’s remains. A nice couple found a tarp to serve as Butch’s shroud, and they carried him to the trunk of Nora’s car. Nora transported Butch to the county Humane Society for a proper and dignified disposition.

When she got home, Nora called her attorney and told him what had happened. When she asked what they could do about it, her lawyer said, “I can file a motion.” “For what?” Nora asked. “I’ll think of something,” the lawyer said.

After thinking for 15 seconds, Nora’s lawyer declared, “It’s called ‘wasting’ assets. If you have an item of community property, it is your responsibility to take care of it. Butch was community property, even if he was also a beloved member of the family. Yes, Butch was community property in Nick’s care and Butch died in Nick’s care because Nick didn’t have the sense to roll up the window. The motion would seek an order requiring Nick to take better care of the other property in his possession — an entire house filled with stuff — than he did with Butch.”

Nora said, “An order requiring Nick to take better care of the stuff in the house?” “Yeah,” the lawyer confirmed. Nora asked, “How could a judge know what it means to take ‘better care’ of this thing than you did with that thing — my poor Butch.”

“Well,” Nora’s lawyer temporized and then continued, “that kind of order would prevent Nick from moving or using your things in a way that is careless or destructive. But Nora, you must understand that at this point, it doesn’t make much difference whether we win or lose. The message to Nick is that, ‘You’re under a microscope and you’re going before the judge at every possible opportunity. The only way to get off the hook is to give Nora the settlement she’s asking for.’”

Nora corrected her lawyer, “I haven’t asked for anything. I’m at the beach. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve lost my mind but, physically, I’m completely comfortable.”

Her lawyer reminded her, “Right, we haven’t asked for anything — yet. But we will, and Nick won’t want to give it to you, and that’s when his desire to get out from under the court’s microscope will help loosen the strings of his money bag.”

Nora was puzzled: “How do you know he won’t want to give me what I ask for?”

Her lawyer explained, “They never want to give what I ask for, and if one ever did, I would know that I didn’t ask for enough.”

Nora was still confused, “But it isn’t his money bag. It’s our money bag; he knows that, so isn’t it just dividing by two?”

“That’s what you are paying me for,” the lawyer said. “Creative division by two.”

. . .

Butch’s death, as sad as it was, presents at least two learning opportunities. The first is about lawyers and the other about death itself.

Watch and note what your lawyers do with the matter of Butch. It won’t be long before both of you will be able to see whether the court should be involved in something like the death of a pet. When you can draw conclusions about what your lawyers did about a dog, you may gain insight into how they have chosen to handle the rest of your case.

The other possible lesson is one I learned from my friend and teacher, Joe Lodge, who at the time of his death had served as a judge longer than anyone sitting on the California bench. This conversation took place while he and I were walking around town during the lunch hour, and at some point he said to me, “In my chambers I have only two books that aren’t law books. One is the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia and the other is a book by a guy named Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Stanford Medical School. It’s called Existential Psychotherapy.”

I asked something like why he thought it was so good.

“Well,” he said, “Yalom took a lot of the philosophy I’ve been thinking about and really struggling with for my entire adult life, and he consolidated and applied it in an attempt to help us improve the way we, as ordinary humans, live our daily lives. He takes abstract philosophy and puts it to work. I can’t think of any other attempt to undertake the task he set for himself, and he does a good job. Most philosophers can’t apply their thinking to their own lives.”

This was 15 years ago, so I just recall the gist of what he said, but it was the way Joe worked. Instead of telling me I must or should read a certain book, he said that it’s “one of two books he keeps in chambers that’s not about law.”

I bought it that day, and I can summarize what it says and how it applies to you in two short paragraphs. Yalom argues that almost all mental health problems have their source in a failure to adequately deal with one or more of the four “Existential Issues,” which are tasks we have to complete in order to have a full life. These four issues are death, aloneness, purpose, and freedom to create and assume an attitude toward any external situation. Who knows if any of Yalom’s conclusions are correct, but for some, myself included, the possibility that there are four tasks to be completed during a lifetime — and not 40 or 400 — is a source of comfort.

Divorce forces you to confront and come to terms with your own aloneness, which is not about being physically alone. It’s about being alone in a sense that’s absolute and profound. I think it’s something most of us will do almost anything to avoid. And now, because of Butch, you have an opportunity to look at death and face the fact that you and everything you love will die.

I don’t know if it’s possible to really confront that reality in the absence of immediate loss. Right now you have a chance to view your divorce in a context that includes both the idea of death and an actual loss. Does anything look or feel different or new as a result of that contemplation?

Your friend,


— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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