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How the Past Death of a Biological Parent Affects the Children in a New Stepfamily

Part 2

After his/her partner has died the bereaved parent often will find a new life partner. This could be years later or months later. It will mean that there will be more change for everyone in the family as a new family is formed. We do know that remarriage will help the children accept the finality of the death of their parent. However, children don’t ever “get over” the death of a parent but eventually will learn to live in a different world without them.

We also know that adding a stepparent in their lives can be stressful but also it can be very helpful and wonderful!

Here is a quick review from my book on how children grieve:

Parents and stepparents might find it helpful to understand how children grieve. It is important to remember that each child grieves in his or her own unique way on his or her own timeline. It is not until the age of five or six that children understand that death is final and permanent and they still retain some magical thinking that the parent might come back to life. They can’t endure the intensity of grief for any length of time and will go in and out of grief throughout the day. They might be crying one moment and then in the next moment they are out playing ball with their friends. Children between the ages of 6 and 8, are learning that death is final but they do not see death as affecting themselves. They are very curious about death and will ask a lot of questions as they try to understand. All children need to know that the death was not their fault especially at this age when they are internalizing everything. Children, between the ages of 9 and 12, deal with more turmoil due to the physical and hormonal changes that are happening to their bodies. Grief is an extra stress for them. They learn at this age to understand both the biological process of death and the emotional aspects of it. Teenagers have developed cognitive skills and so they intellectually understand that death is inevitable, irreversible and universal. In an attempt to figure out their world, they struggle with moral questions such as, “Why me?”

There are times children need to be alone and times they need to grieve with others. Both are necessary in order to deal with the pain of grief. Everyone needs some help and understanding from family and friends when mourning the loss of a special loved one, not just children.

I know that the biological parent and the stepparent will be concerned about how to help a child and a teen deal with their grief. It may be helpful to understand some facts about children’s grief. (I am assuming that the new stepfamily was formed some time after the death of a biological parent.)

  • A child’s grief journey will not be predictable. All children grieve differently.

  • Children often think there is something very wrong with them if they feel numb for a period of time after the death. This is a normal reaction for a child and they may need reassurance that this is okay.

  • Some children and teens think that they caused the death by past negative thoughts or in the case of teens, because teens often challenge a parent’s discipline. This is very painful for a child and can affect the child for a long time if they think the death is their fault.

  • Children may have physical reactions to grief such as stomach pains and headaches, especially at bedtime. This is especially true for children between the ages of nine and 12.

  • Hyperactivity and impulsive behavior often come with grief for young children.

  • Teens often become angry instead of sad. Dealing with the pain is hard and they sometimes don’t know how to deal with their feelings. Teens might want to numb the strong feelings and the might turn to drugs and alcohol. They have been known to take it out on others, verbally and/or physically, e.g. slamming doors, punching holes in the wall, doing drugs, yelling at family members. If their anger turns inwards, they may become depressed. Parents and stepparents will want to help by giving their teens the opportunity to understand and process feelings of grief and loss. Finding a group setting with other teens who are grieving also is very helpful. Many schools have programs to help.

  • Children and teens may hide their feelings if they think it will upset their parent or stepparent. Parents that don’t hide their own sad feelings, show children that grieving for a parent is acceptable.

  • Young children often can’t explain to you how they are feeling. They don’t know what that word means. Watch for behaviors such as loss of concentration at school, aggressive actions towards other children, increased illness, immature language and regressive behavior (especially among very small children) such as sucking a thumb or throwing tantrums again.

  • Children may have physical reactions to grief such as stomach pains and headaches, especially at bedtime. This is especially true for children between the ages of nine and 12.

Do not expect too much from grieving children/teens too soon. Grieving is a long process and all children grieve according to their developmental level, rather than their chronological age.

One method for helping children and teens cope with a death is to involve them in activities. Daily activities will help, and keeping some routines will help, too. Another way to help children cope is with the use of memories. Keeping memories alive helps children remember just how important that parent was in their lives.

Here are some activities that parents and stepparents can do with their children/stepchildren and teens.

  • Children who love to draw can sketch a portrait of their loves one that can be framed and put up in their room.

  • Rocks can be painted and placed in pockets and held when needed. The idea is that it is a special rock to give them courage and strength.

  • Making their own puppets will allow for puppet shows and dialogue.

  • Snacks are important and favorite foods can give a child comfort. Let them help you make their snacks.

  • Put pictures of the parent in their rooms, plant a tree, celebrate that parent’s birthday together, buy their favorite flowers, tell them about the good memories you have about their parent. If a stepparent knew the deceased parent they can talk about all the special ways they appreciated the parent.

  • Young people can keep journals, recording specifics about what they miss about a parent, their feelings and how their day went and what hurts the most. They do not have to share what they write it can be their own personal journal.

  • Writing letters to their parent is often helpful. It can be about anything they want the parent to know about.

  • Young people can construct collages to express their life today without the left one, memories in their hearts, or their journey of grief.

  • Some children like to put messages to their parent in a balloon or on a feather and them release them into the wind.

  • Sing a song or write a poem for themselves or for certain special occasions.

  • Books and movies often help children/teens understand and cope with grief.

Once again, here are some recommendations from my book:

Listen carefully if the child wants to talk about death, but don’t force them to talk if they don’t want to. Explain to your child that what they feel is normal. Use simple honest answers to a child’s questions. However, don’t feel you need to have all the answers.

Express and repeat elements of your discussion with your children. Children often need to hear explanations more than once.

  • Reassure your child that you will look after her/him always. Children worry about who will take care of them after a parent dies. Stress that their stepparent cares too and will be available for them if they reach out.

  • Talk about the dead parent often in a loving way. It is important to the child that the other biological parent hasn’t forgotten the dead parent.

  • Encourage the child to tell the stepparent all about their dead parent.

  • Hold your child often and give them extra attention whenever you can. Sometimes they don’t admit it, but teens need lots of hugs and attention also.

  • Keep a consistent routine, including regular meal times and bedtimes.

  • Spend special time with your child or teen at bedtime. Ask them about their day and if there is anything they want to talk about with you.

  • Read books about grief together and buy book for teens to read. There are lots of book you can read to them about death, even if they are younger.

  • If your child is crying, just hug the child or hold their hand. Do not try to stop their tears of grief. Crying is a natural way to release the pain.

  • Events such as high school graduations and weddings may cause your child to feel particularly sad. Have a ritual that includes the deceased parent before or after the event. For example, raise a toast to the parent and talk about how proud he/she would be, light a candle during the wedding to remember the special parent, or even read a poem written to the parent at the event. Always include the stepparent in these events.

  • It is important for the biological parent to remember they did not cause the death of their partner, and therefore it is not helpful to the child to feel guilty. You don’t have to “make up for the loss” with your children by favoring them or spoiling them. Also, if there are stepchildren in the family now, it can cause some hard feelings.

Seibert, & Drotet, & Fetro (2003), in their book Helping Children Live with Death and Loss, suggest that “if your child is not playing or learning or loving in their lives,” (p. 90) you will need to consider getting professional help. We often get confused about whether our child’s depression is about grief or something else. Watch for deterioration of academic achievements and classroom behavior, a disinterest in their peers, refusal to cooperate at home, continuous power struggles at home and/or lethargy about everything. It seems to be the duration of the depression that is your warning signal.

As parents you are going to need energy to cope with all the responsibilities. Look after your partnership. Discuss with each other what you need and your children need. Share the tasks and support each other. Stepparents need to be strong and not take everything that happens personally with regard to children and teens. It will help if stepparents can be patient and understanding when the grieving child continues to view the stepparent’s behavior as “wrong.” Being compared to the parent that died often can get very tiring and maybe hurtful.

Sometimes children remember only the good things about that parent and they often idealize the parent who is gone. Resentment can grow when children see another person attempting to fill the role of a missing parent. This is part of yearning for that parent. This can even happen years after the parent has died. However, stepparents don’t need to be afraid to be themselves and help when needed. It is important for the stepparent to embrace the lost parent and help keep her/his memory alive. The memory of that parent is, and will always be, a part of stepfamily’s life. Children often appreciate the stepparent for his /her sensitivity and kindness.

One day a stepmom walked into the bedroom of a young girl age 10 who was crying for her mother who died of cancer two years before. The stepmom took her hand and said, “we can do this together.” The young girl fell into her arms and they cried together.

One area of concern for the parent and the stepparent is that nothing can stay the same as it was before the parent’s death. You will not be able to protect your children from change. The routines just can’t help but be different even though you try to keep them similar. Many routines and rituals will be different now. Stepparent can’t be expected, to be like the deceased parent nor will they want to pick up the life where the deceased partner left off. It is best for both partners to accept that there will be many changes ahead and not just for the children but for both new partners.

From a parent’s perspective who has lost a loved one, in the early days of grief, it is important not to treat a child as a replacement for a dead partner. Children have a tendency to become seemingly more mature and responsible after a death, but they still need their childhood. Encourage them to be children/teens. Also, it will be very hard for a stepparent to take an adult role in the family. If this has happened speak to your children and thank them for their concerns. Then encourage children to continue with activities and old friendships.

While parents, both biological and step, attempt to support their children Earl Grollman in his book Bereaved Children and Teens gives this advice, “the best possible way to deal with death is with honesty, to provide as much age-appropriate accurate information as it's needed at any point in time.” “

Show confidence in your children’s ability to thrive. Children are often very resilient. They have the capability to adapt and integrate the loss into their lives. Keep your eye on the horizon and stay hopeful.

All the best,

Blythe Ward



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