Ron L. Deal, President of Smart Stepfamilies
I am dreading the holidays. My 12 year-old son, Connor, died in February 2009 and every year I become anxious about facing the holiday season without him. How can my family go through the motions of our annual traditions without Connor? How do we find the "joy of the season" with so much sorrow in our hearts?
Most likely you, too, have been through a significant loss in your life. I know your children or stepchildren have. And whether we like it or not, the magic of the holidays also resurrects our pain. Loss is central to the stepfamily experience. I suggest you get prepared to face it, especially during this time of year.
The Enduring Nature of Loss
Whether your loss came this past year or 10 years ago, you won't "get over it." You will only get through it. Loss endures. And special family occasions, like the holidays, remind us once again of what is no more.
A deceased parent will be missed this time of year with extra tears. A family fractured by divorce will feel again the pain of being emotionally splintered into two houses. Children will reminisce about what was and what could have been, while reprocessing how they feel about the new stepfamily members in their lives. Grandparents will wish the family could once again, all be together. And when the awkwardness of holiday activities confronts, stepparents may again evaluate the realities of life and expectations lost.
Because loss is enduring these types of responses cannot be helped. And they should not be avoided. The fragile nature of stepfamily living sometimes leads people to deny resurrected pain or try to "fix" others who experience it. Grandparents, for example, might assume that a child who cries once again over the loss of the original family just needs a well designed word that will make everything better. Even worse, insecure parents may emotionally punish a child for not being loyal to the new family. For example, when learning that his adult children questioned whether they would attend a pre-Christmas party that included their stepmother's adult children and grandchildren, one father threatened not to attend his grandchild's Christmas play. He thought by threatening to emotionally withdraw himself he could encourage his adult children to accept his new wife. How misguided!
Responding to Loss
Loss does not need to be fixed. It needs to be expressed-and received with compassion. Don't be afraid of your own feelings of loss and don't fear listening to those of others. The process of "bearing with one another" is how we survive grief (Galatians 6:2).
Give permission to grief and use the holidays as a spring board to conversation about loss. A stepparent might say to a child, for example, "I noticed that you're not getting to spend as much time this year with your dad and his parents. I bet that makes you sad. [Pause and wait for a response.]" Or, while engaged in a holiday tradition that started before the stepfamily began, one might say, "I know this reminds you of [missing family member]. Tell me a story about when you used to do this activity together." These small conversations give permission to grief and the emotional connections therein. Plus, when communicated by a stepparent, they engender respect, care for the person, and may actually facilitate the new stepfamily relationships.
Model sadness. Adults should talk openly about their sadness and express tears. This communicates that it is okay for others to do the same, but more importantly, it models for younger children appropriate ways of grieving.
Coach children in healthy grieving. Labeling the emotions of children, for example, helps them learn to identify the emotion in themselves. "I've noticed that since coming home from your mom's house you are pretty irritable. I'm wondering if you are missing her a lot lately?" A child who has been acting angry in this situation can now deal with their sadness, a necessary action if they are ever to stop being inappropriately angry and irritable.
Act in kindness. Consider what might minister to someone's grief and act accordingly. A stepfamily member might encourage, "I know you're sister's family is only here for a short time. Why don't you spend extra time with them and I'll manage the children for a while."
Don't take it personally. Stepparents, especially, need to disconnect from the pain of their stepchildren during the holidays. A child's sadness for what has been lost is not necessarily a rejection of you. Don't make it about you; keep it about them.
Manage your guilt. Biological parents can become frozen by their children's sadness. Yes, their pain may be a result of your past choices, but don't allow that guilt to paralyze you from setting reasonable limits and enforcing rules. Permissiveness does not heal pain.
The Great Teacher
Loss is the great teacher. It has the power to reprioritize our life and remind us what matters most. The loss of my son has certainly had that impact on me. This holiday, don't squash your grief (or anyone else's).