After a Parent Dies: Tips for Stepparents
Ron L Deal
Tips for Stepparenting After the Death of a Parent:
- Try to know what kind of parent their mother was and what she valued. Since you stand in her shadow, this will help you understand how your stepchildren experience you.
- Compliment their parent’s values and parenting when you can. He or she is not your enemy.
- Children may feel confused about embracing your love. Letting you in may feel like losing their parent again. A child’s emotional attachment to a deceased parent continues well after their death. Be patient with what appears to be “hot/cold” responses and think of it as “confusion” instead.
- Children can unfairly compare how their parent did or might have parented to your style. Don’t get caught arguing about whether or not they would or would not act in a particular way. Say, “That might have been your mom’s rule, but your father and I have discussed this and this is the rule now.”
- If you have moved into the home once occupied by your spouse and the deceased parent, you may feel that their “ghost” is alive and well. Ideally, try to purchase a new house. If that is not possible, find small but significant ways of making the home yours. Realize that children will want to retain certain decorations or pictures that remind them of their parent. This is quite appropriate when reserved to their personal space (e.g., bedroom or bathroom).
- Children need to keep alive the memory of their parent. If loving you means risking “forgetting” their mother, you will find their loyalty wall very tall.
- As your relationship with a child grows, you may find that it resurrects their grief. Don’t be overwhelmed by this; take it in stride and give the child time to adjust their heart.
- Find ways of honoring the biological parent and help children to “remember” her significance.
- When family traditions are modified or omitted children may fear that their parent is being forgotten. Keep at least one significant tradition that honors the children’s parent alive. This shows your respect for her, demonstrates that you are not taking her place, and honors their grief.
- Contact the deceased parent’s extended family (e.g., parents and siblings) and give them permission to be involved in the life of your stepchild. Their involvement in birthdays, holidays, child care, etc. bridges the insider/outsider gap in your home and blesses all the children with lots of love. Possessiveness divides, permission connects.
- After the death of a spouse and time as a single parent, biological parents may find it difficult to make room for shared parenting with the stepparent. The mantle of caretaking has been your sole responsibility; “making space” at this point might feel like “letting go”. Guilt will certainly be close by. Wrestle with your feelings and realize that allowing someone else to share the load of parenting does not mean you are neglecting or abandoning your children. It’s a new season of life; embrace it.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.