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Stepping Stones Counseling Center Past Articles

Letting Go, Holding On
by Karon Goodman

One of the most difficult issues for a stepfamily to understand and deal with is the grief that almost all members bring to the new union. Even when everyone seems to be doing well, there is usually some pain hiding just beneath the surface. Learning to deal with it means learning to not be afraid of it. Your family can learn to let go of the grief and hold on to the promise of better times to come.

Both kids and adults have wounds that have to heal. Let's look at the kids' grief first.

The Kids

Regardless of how long their parents have been apart, your stepkids may grieve for the loss of their original family. It's not uncommon for children to hold onto the hope that their parents will reunite, even if they've been told otherwise. The new stepfamily signifies the end of that hope. And for many kids, that hurts almost too much to bear.

They may show their grief in any number of ways. They may be very vocal and lash out at you or your spouse. They may come right out and tell you how much your marriage hurts them and how much they dislike it. They may tell you they wish you'd go away.

If the kids aren't that obvious with their grief, they may display it by retreating from you. Before you married, you may have enjoyed a good relationship -- because you were viewed as temporary and the hope of a reunion was still there. After the marriage, you're a permanent part of their lives, and because the rest that fact (that their parents aren't getting back together) is, too, they may need to pull away from you while they grieve.

After a remarriage, kids often grieve for the loss of time with their parent. That's an area where you can help because you can be sure that the one-on-one time with their parent doesn't change just because you're around. That kind of grief may manifest itself as belligerence toward you, when in reality, it's the companionship of their parent that they're craving.

Unfortunately, kids may also have to deal with their other parent's grief or anger. He or she may tell the kids that they can't love you, because that'll mean that they don't love that parent anymore. The other parent may cause the child to feel great conflicts of loyalty, and that leads to intense grief.

Sometimes, kids will need professional help to deal with the grief they feel. Often, though, you and your spouse can help them through it with lots of patience and understanding. You can also show them that something wonderful is there to take the place of that grief, if they'll let it.

The Adults

This marriage may be exactly what you want, but it doesn't come without a price. You and your spouse will have your own grief to deal with.

If your stepkids are lashing out at you because of their grief, then that will hurt. Badly. You'll need enormous strength to deal with your own feelings of persecution and pain while you try to help your stepkids deal with their hurt. You'll all have to take it slowly and work on making just a little bit of progress each day.

If you have children, you may grieve for the loss of your own original family. If your children aren't thrilled about your new marriage, you may feel guilty about ushering them into a life they don't want. Or, you, too, may grieve for the loss of one-on-one time with your children.

After you've stepped into your new life and experienced its challenges, you may grieve for the loss of your less complicated life -- the one without stepchildren and former spouses. You may grieve for your loss of personal time and freedom, as well as the loss of a honeymoon period and time alone with your spouse. Those feelings will get easier to manage as you find happiness and peace within your family by building on the successes you enjoy, one day at a time.

Letting Go . . .

The grief that everyone feels won't just disappear because you want it to. Accept that you and everyone else has had losses and that it hurts -- if you try to deny it, the grief will only last longer. Time, acknowledgement, and a willingness to let go of it will help it pass. Being willing to let go is harder for kids than adults, so set the example.

If the kids see you feeling sad or experiencing a painful time, use the opportunity to teach them how to let go. Let them know that it's ok to feel sad over things that hurt or things you can't change, but you can feel better when you find something positive in the life you have now. And if they want to share their feelings, listen without passing judgment. Accept the grief. Help them to accept it, too, and then help them let it go.

. . . Holding On

Just because your family was born of a loss doesn't mean that it's destined to suffer indefinitely. The grief will subside, and you can build a strong family along the way. You can build something new even when you hurt for something passed.

Don't be afraid to talk about your family members' pain and difficulty in adjusting to a new life. Find understanding and compassion for one another. Hold on to each other while your hearts mend for things lost. Focus on the promise and possibilities of your new family. Find something good to fill the space in everyone's heart when the grief goes away.

Karon Goodman is a writer and mother who publishes an email newsletter for brave, overwhelmed stepmoms.

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