loss of a Loved One
The death of a stepchild sets
into motion complex issues that vary from family to family for many different
reasons. The length and quality of the marriage and the nature of the
biological parentchild relationship play a primary role in the grief that
follows. A stepparent may have parented this child for many years and invested
as much time and love as any biological parent. On the other hand, there may
not have been the necessary time or opportunity to bond with the child.
Sometimes personality conflicts make warm relationships impossible, often
leaving the stepparent with ambivalent feelings of relief and remorse that
further complicate an already difficult situation. In some situations, the
stepchild, able to live only with one biological parents family, may have no
established relationship with the other stepparent.
When a child
dies, it is normal and natural for the people who loved that child to
experience some form of grief. These forms may vary and as a consequence grief
reactions may differ. Some typical reactions include the following:
Crying, loneliness, a feeling of isolation
* A need to talk about the death
and the circumstances surrounding it
* Feelings of hopelessness,
* Anger, guilt, blame
* Loss of appetite,
overeating, sleeplessness, irritability
* Inability to concentrate,
comprehend, or remember
* Loss of goals and aims in life, a sense of
desolation about the future
Circumstances of the Death:
The circumstances of the death may also influence grief reactions.
Each loss, whatever the cause, may bring with it complicating factors. For
instance, it may be necessary to cope with a police investigation, trial, or
intrusive publicity. In these circumstances, grieving is often put aside while
daily coping with such factors is necessary.
A factor affecting
stepparent grief may be the issue of who was physically caring for the child at
the time of death. Anger and guilt are typical grief reactions but can be
heightened when a stepparent is the caregiving parent when the death occurs.
Open communication between biological parents and stepparents is
extremely important as all parties try to assimilate information and details of
the circumstances of the death. This quest for information might be
misinterpreted as assigning blame or responsibility but should be recognized as
an integral part of the grief experience. Parents, particularly those not
physically present at the time of the death, have a need to know exactly what
happened. When information is freely shared without prior judgment,
misunderstandings may be avoided.
Stepparents May Feel Excluded
stepparent may feel almost invisible to the spouse, other stepchildren,
extended family, friends, clergy, or medical personnel. Stepparents may find
themselves excluded from important discussions about medical decisions or
funeral arrangements. The assumption appears to be that the stepparent, unlike
the biological parent, cannot possibly understand or feel the depth of the
loss. Additional pain is felt when others, with no malice intended, fail to
acknowledge stepparents or make insensitive remarks. Sympathy cards may not
include a stepparents name. All these things serve to remind stepparents that
their pain and concern are often unrecognized, seen as illegitimate, or at
Feelings May Resurface
Be alert to the
possibility that old unresolved emotional issues between the biological parents
may become more pronounced after the death, especially if there had been
conflicts over the parenting process. On the other hand, the biological parents
may have a need at this time to cling together as they struggle with the loss,
thus making a stepparent feel further isolated and even threatened. This is
usually a temporary situation, but one that requires tolerance, restraint, and
As time passes following the death, a biological parent
may feel the need to recall fond memories of the child. Often this is possible
only with the help of the other biological parent. The fear of forgetting these
memories and the need to recall them are natural and a magnet between the
A marriage in any family, whether
one with biological parents or one involving a stepparent, can experience its
most severe test after the death of a child. The emotional distance between
spouses can become immense. For many in a blended family, this may be the time
for the stepparent to tell the spouse:
* My feeling of helplessness
over your agony is almost unbearable.
* I wish I could alleviate some
of the depression and mood swings that you are experiencing. I feel useless
when my attempts fail. Please tell me that my efforts are appreciated.
* It hurts to know that you sometimes feel there is nothing to live
for; that the best is over; that our marriage is not enough to make you want to
go on. Let me find the courage to acknowledge your feelings so that we can get
beyond them. At least give me the job of listening.
* Even though I
hold myself together at times to help you through this crisis, I am
* The bond I felt with the child who died couldn't have
been stronger if I were a biological parent. Please allow me that deep feeling
and acknowledge my love for you and your child.
* Being a stepparent is
both a risk and a reward. I need your love and support.
* Please don't
shut me out. I care. Please talk to me.
Hope for the Future
stepparents the grief experience may be a precarious journey as they try to
balance the needs of their spouses, their own feelings, and other familial
relationships. It is a time when patience, understanding and communication are
of the utmost importance.
Many stepparents have overcome these
obstacles and have found hope for the future through participation in support
organizations such as The Compassionate Friends. Sharing feelings and concerns
with other parents, in an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding, can
lessen the feelings of loneliness and isolation experienced by bereaved
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