The Grieving Stepchild

The Grieving Stepchild

Stepfamilies are typically formed after divorce or the marriage of a single parent who has up to that point raised their child alone or after the death of a parent. By their very nature stepfamilies are born of loss which is grieved in one way or another by all involved.

When the loss is through death it can be especially harrowing, particularly for young children. The age and stage of development of a child at the time of their parent’s death, (and the nature of the death itself), will strongly influence the ways in which a child reacts and adapts. Nevertheless, the grief that accompanies the loss associated with the death of a parent as a child (as opposed to such a loss as an adult) is made more complex by the fact that the child has to integrate this loss into their life as part of growing up and becoming an adult. It can have a permanent effect on a child’s development and their sense of self and of family regardless of their age.

Hell, I was 39 when I had to adjust to living in a world which my mother is no longer a part of. I was a grown up, with life experience. I consider myself mentally stable (well most of the time) and, for crying out loud, I’m a fricken psychologist and it still knocked me for a six.

However old you are, you are never prepared for a world in which the person with whom you perhaps fought and butted heads with, who shaped you and who you loved and relied on for unconditional love and support is gone. Losing a parent is hard. But when you mix this grieving experience with stepfamily dynamics, it can stir up and create emotional turmoil for everyone– for the child dealing with the loss of a parent, for the remaining biological parent, and for the new partner – emotional turmoil which no one expects or is ever truly prepared for.

The reality of stepfamily life is that the ‘other’ parent always has some sort of an influence/impact on your household. None more so in a situation where that parent is not only absent, but deceased. That, my friend, is a whole other obstacle course. When a parent has died, dating, re-partnering or remarriage of the remaining parent may renew or trigger unfinished grieving in children. It can also engender in the child a number and mixture of thoughts and feelings, such as hurt, suspicion, jealousy, insecurity and manipulation. It can bring with it a yearning for the departed loved one, idealisation of the deceased parent and reminders of what has been lost.

At the end of the day it is also another transition for the child to have to adjust to and cope with. A transition that will inevitably result in questions, challenges and/or possibly problematic behaviours associated with the child’s surviving parent having re-partnered. Problematic behaviours and jealousy can be particular issues (especially in primary school aged children and teenagers) if, following the parent’s death, a child has been compensating and has unhealthily assumed a pseudo-parental responsibility for their surviving parent’s emotional wellbeing.

As a stepparent how do you best handle this complex emotional vortex?

There is no simple answer. Grief is a continuum and has many faces. A child’s emotional attachment to a deceased parent continues well after that parent’s death. It is important to accept and understand that the child’s or young person’s grief will also likely be re-experienced, and the loss of the parent acutely felt, at times of remembrance (such as the anniversary of the parent’s death, Christmas, etc) or life transitions (such as birthdays, graduation, leaving home, marrying and having a child of one’s own).

Your stepchildren’s reaction and re-reaction to their parent’s death is a normal part of grief and loss and has little to do with you or the quality of and closeness of your relationship. Don’t take it personally. It is important not to feel threatened by, or to minimize, the reoccurrence of this grief, but to support the child or young person/adult through this new stage of adjusting to life without their parent. Remain mindful that learning how to deal with grief is like coping with other physical, mental, and emotional tasks — it’s a process, not an event, and it inevitably takes time.

In the absence of a simple answer of what to try when dealing with a grieving stepchild, we make the following suggestions:

Space.

In the early days of your relationship with your partner, don’t rush your introduction and your presence into his/her children’s lives. Give the children ample space to get to know you as their prospective step-parent – in relation to their world, rather than simply as ‘mummy’s boyfriend’, or ‘daddy’s girlfriend’. Give your stepchildren the space to allow them to get used to the idea of you and of being part of a new stepfamily.
Time – Accept your stepchild’s time scale and that it is inevitably differently paced from your own. A child’s grief can be spread over many years. As we have noted, it may also resurface in adulthood, especially at a time of crisis and/or celebration.

Compassion and Sensitivity.

Encourage your stepchild to talk about any fears or concerns they may have about a ‘replacement parent’ being foisted upon them.

Patience and Permission.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the loss and the parent that has died. This gives your stepchildren permission to talk about it too. Listen patiently, when they do talk.

Realism.

When you can, compliment your stepchildren’s deceased parent’s values and parenting. But be careful not to over-glorify or to run down the deceased parent (or that parent’s family). Children need good, realistic memories on which to build their future.

Remembrance.

Children may fear that their parent is being forgotten. Work together with your partner and step-kids to find appropriate ways of honouring the biological parent and help children to ‘remember’ his/her significance. Diane Fromme, the author of ‘Stepparenting the Grieving Child’, advocates that as difficult (and possibly awkward) as it can be, at least two anniversaries each year should not go without recognition in a grieving stepfamily: the deceased parent’s birth date and death date. This shows your respect for that parent and can help demonstrate to the child that you are not trying to take that parent’s place, and honours their grief.

Step-parenting can be hard enough at the best of times, step-parenting in the context of grief can be especially difficult. Be patient and tolerant with yourself. Bear in mind, the deceased parent is not your enemy. And never forget that the death of a parent changes your life forever.

4 thoughts on “The Grieving Stepchild

  1. Diane Fromme

    Well done article! I love the phrase “Patience and Permission.” The number of articles on this topic seemed to be diminishing, which is one reason I wrote the book, Stepparenting the Grieving Child in 2017. Thanks for continuing the worldwide education around helping grieving kids and stepkids.

  2. ACarney

    I wish my stepfather would have read this. My mom died nearly two years ago. 11 months after she died, he was interested in meeting someone he met online. Despite my own feelings of not being ready, I encouraged him to do what thought would make him happy, even when the my step siblings (from his first marriage) were giving him a hard time. When my mom was dying I confessed to my step father that I was afraid I was going to lose him after my Mother’s death. (My biological father disowned me after he got remarried claiming that he didn’t like that my husband wasn’t the same skin color. Now I know he was a bigoted asshole, but honestly I always felt like he was looking for a reason to dump me.) My stepfather promised me that I would never have to worry about that and that he thought of me as much of a daughter as his from his first wedding.

    Once he met his, now, bride in person, they were living with each other within 4 months. Getting a picture of them together was like pulling teeth, and our texts and calls each week became nonexistent. I was going through a divorce from an abusive marriage and I would have loved to just talk to him for encouragement, but I definitely felt like he didn’t want to talk to me. He got engaged 6 months later at a big birthday dinner with the kids from his first marriage. He lied to me and said he was out of town, so I wouldn’t visit on his birthday like usual. I take my kids out each summer around his birthday. I found out about the engagement from the neighbor ( I believe she is his flying monkey). My dad did finally tell me two weeks later and I was invited to the wedding. A couple of weeks later after I had already bought plane tickets for both my kids and myself, he called me and said, “Yeah, about the wedding, don’t come. (NewBride) is sensitive to me being stuck in the past about your mother, and talking about your mother too much, and you coming to the wedding would just prove that.”

    I knew that my feelings of sadness over this new relationship bringing light to the fact that my Mom was really gone, in fact it restarted my grieving process. I kept this to myself as I know it was my feelings to deal with and I didn’t want to hamper my stepfather’s chance at love and happiness.

    I wrote my dad an email (because he didn’t respond to voicemails or texts like before) that it was bullshit and hurtful to both me and my children. After several passive aggressive posts of quotes on facebook and two months of no contact from him, I have decided that he obviously doesn’t want me in his life, and if he’s going to be toxic (his narcissistic tendencies had really come out after my mom was no longer around to be his buffer) and I refuse to be treated like a second-class citizen in the family. When he told me to not to come to the wedding, it was like I had lost another family member. I don’t have much family, one full blood sister (I’m not super close with) and my stepdad. I have reached out to some cousins I lost touch with recently to help with the feelings of utter abandonment and isolation I’ve been feeling.

    I have read so many posts and articles about daughters who exclude a stepparent, but not so many about a stepchild who gets excluded when their step parent remarries. It’s so hurtful and wrong, to exclude kind, loving family members. Narcissistic tendencies run rampant in my family, and after finally getting out of my marriage, I view this as a ‘Courtesy Flush’ from the universe. Overall, I’m still very emotional over it. Between losing my mom last year, and my inlaws when I filed for divorce, I’ve now also lost my dad and step siblings (who also don’t seem interested in talking to me anymore).

    So yeah, any stepparent who reads and uses the information in this article, or for all of those stepparents who just understood it naturally, many kudos to you.

  3. R & T

    Hi Diane

    Thanks for taking the time to leave us a comment. We love your work and highly recommend it!

    Take care,
    R & T

  4. Patricia

    I wish I’d had this to read years ago. My stepdaughter’s mother died when she was six and I came into the household when she was eight. There was so much I didn’t know going on behind the scenes- my 15 year old stepson, who has Asperger’s, fed her lies about me, and while I know he did it because of his anger and grief, it kept my stepdaughter and I from being able to connect in the early days. My stepdaughter is now 22 and she is going through a heavy stage of grieving again. She grieves that she wasn’t able to get to know her mother as a person, to have the kind of conversations she and I have shared. She has also had other terrible trauma- she was molested by a teacher at her high school, some who had been very kind to her socially awkward brother and whom at first we thought was a great guy. Two weeks after she testified against her, a boy she was forming a romantic relationship with committed suicide. Thus started two years of the worst hell that she, her father, and I have ever been through. She was put in a lock-down psych facility twice. To be honest, I didn’t she’d never make it to 22. I thought she’d be dead by her own hand or living under a bridge somewhere. My husband had no idea how to handle any of this and it all fell in my lap- calling for help when she was suicidal, meeting with psychologists and therapists. He and we were there for her, a solid unit despite the situation, every second of this time. Not wavering in our love and concern, making sure she had what she needed, physically and psychologically. Despite that, you’ll probably not be surprised that she kept using me as her kicking post, even while I know she respected that I was there and I was the only who would help her see the hard truths. There have been times when she and I have had a real connection. I know she loves me, but she also hates me. She is now on track for her PhD in genetics, having been tapped as an undergrad by a famous geneticist and works in his lab when she’s not in school. However, as with most geniuses, and because of her past, she is riddled with insecurities, severe anxiety, and is obsessed with the death of her mother. A few years ago she started calling me mom- and isn’t that the sweetest word in the English language? She is intensely jealous of my relationship with her father, my relationship with my own daughters, who are several years older, and at Thanksgiving with my family a few days ago, emotionally sabotaged me, trying to make me look bad in front of my family. Needless to say, I was and am very hurt. Her mother’s parents refused to see the children after their daughter died, the selfish idiots, said it was “too painful”. My husband’s parents were both gone. However, MY parents welcomed both children with open arms and my dad and she have a wonderful loving relationship. The only grandparents she’s really known are my parents.

    God, I’m sorry I rambled on so. I’m still smarting from her hurtful behavior over Thanksgiving. She’s going through a phase of grief again and has pushed me away. Me, the one who’s always been there picking up the pieces. I do love this girl fiercely and she saw this ferocity when we were dealing with her abuser. She knows I fought for her. But right now she has no use for me and is consumed with jealousy and resentment. BTW she absolutely refuses to see a therapist-and I see one for myself and talk openly about it- frankly, I think she’s terrified to deal with her issues. I am again the dog she kicks. While I understand the psychology of it, I’m just so exhausted, so damned exhausted from dealing with her. Thanks for letting me unload. This saga has been fifteen years in the making, and I still don’t have a handle on it- and I left a lot out! I am emotionally depleted.

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