Four years after my mom died of cancer, my dad got remarried. Right after the wedding his new wife, Aggie—my stepmother—moved into our family’s home. In truth, my siblings and I barely knew her. I wish they had known how to stepparent grieving children.
Changes in Routine
Quickly, with my dad’s blessing, she took the reins of the household, which resulted in all sorts of changes to our house and our routine. She planned weekly menus so that she could grocery shop once. She established six fifteen as the official dinnertime and asked me to help make sure we stuck to the schedule. She cleaned out the linen cupboard, and in the process unearthed a set of white towels and asked me to hang them in the hall bathroom. My mom had called those “the good towels” and had only put them out for infrequent special occasions. They were thick and fluffy with her initials embroidered in burgundy.
I started to say to my new stepmother, “Those are the good . . .” but her blue eyes looked cool and hard like marbles above her wide smile, and a quivery sensation I didn’t understand closed my throat against further words.
“Might as well get use out of them,” she said, chipper. “No sense sitting on the shelf.”
Something felt wrong, but instinct fixed a neutral expression on my face, and I carried out her instructions.
Changes to Traditions
Aggie also switched up all of our past Christmas customs, and over time she and my dad introduced many other sudden changes including a move across town to a new house. I remember when the enormity of what was happening set in: I sobbed in my room. The ground was shifting under my feet, and I didn’t know what to grab for stability. But in that era emotional awareness was not the norm. We all remained silent about the sorrow that still lingered in the wake of my mom’s death and all the changes that followed.
What we did not realize, or talk about, was that we were grieving. As stepchildren, we were grieving not only the loss of our mother and of familiar places and routines, but also, the arrival of a stepparent. Although a new stepparent can bring families plenty of positives—and Aggie did in many ways—their arrival can also jolt stepchildren. Their presence accentuates the loss of the parent they are grieving. This was the case for me. But I didn’t realize it until much later, when I embarked on my journey of reassembling the suppressed and forgotten pieces of my past. I write about this in my memoir, The Art of Reassembly.
Tips for How to Stepparent Grieving Children
Today, as a volunteer at a children’s grief center, I am especially mindful of the unique circumstances facing grieving stepchildren. From this experience and my own journey I’ve learned a lot about what stepparents can do to be mindful of stepchildren’s grieving. You can build a strong, loving new family in the wake of a parent’s death. Here are a few ideas on how to stepparent grieving children:
- Educate yourself on children’s grief. This includes learning how it recurs over time, especially during transitions and when milestones, such as death anniversaries or major life events like weddings, are reached.
- Understand the impact of secondary losses. Events that occur as a result of a death such as moving to a new home or a disruption of routines can represent another loss for stepchildren. From a child’s perspective, the addition of a stepparent can represent a further loss of their parent.
- Allow plenty of space for memories of the deceased parent. Keep pictures of them visible, acknowledge and mark their death anniversary and continue traditions that were important to the stepchildren, asking them which traditions are meaningful to them. Be mindful of using items that belonged to the deceased parent: ask stepchildren what their feelings are about this before doing so, and be sure to set aside special items for the children’s future use.
- Be yourself, be patient, and keep an open mind. Trust that the relationship with your grieving stepchildren will emerge in its own time, and let it.
- Care for yourself. Stepparenting is hard work! All the more so when stepchildren are grieving. Set aside time for fun and relaxation with friends, continue your hobbies. Keep up with exercise routines and continue enjoying nature or whatever other settings are important to you.
Together, these steps will help sharpen your sensitivities to what grieving stepchildren may be experiencing at different times. Being the loving and supportive stepparent they need will make your experience rich and rewarding as well.