The Death Of A Stepchild


The term step-parent covers a wide spectrum of relationships within today's complicated second families. A stepfamily is created when two adults, one or both of whom already has a child or children, form a relationship where the new partner becomes an important adult or parental figure to the children. Adult sons and daughters can also become stepchildren if their single, widowed or divorced parent takes another partner. In relation to this leaflet, a step-parent can be someone who has been in this role for many years or is a recent family member or has joined the family after the death of a child.

Stepfamilies are complex and very diverse - there are many ways in which a stepfamily can be formed. What others call a family tree, stepfamilies describe as a family forest. The stepfamily may come about following bereavement, through single parenthood or after separation or divorce, and the stepchildren may live part- or full-time in the new family.

Those of us who have been step-parents for many years may find that some people do not adequately recognise or acknowledge our grief and we may be overlooked in their concern for the birth-parent's welfare. This attitude is hurtful and can leave us feeling an outsider in our own family. Our feelings are important, however, and just as we may have loved and cared for our stepchild, so we feel grief and loss at their death.

Those of us who are recent family members may feel deep affection for the daughter or son of the partner we love, even though we may have known the child for only a short time. We will feel shock and grief over the death and be concerned for our partner and his or her children. We might, however, feel isolated when the family is going over earlier memories of the child, at the funeral or at later family gatherings. Finding a specific role may help us to feel more involved.

Those step-parents who joined the family after the death of the child may also be affected by the feeling described above. Nevertheless, we may be able to bring comfort, support and practical help to the parent and the family because our emotional involvement in the situation is less intense. It is not always easy, however, to understand the very profound and variable emotions that parents experience after the death of their child. The emotional seesaw of bereavement is as bewildering to the parent as it is to others, and can continue for a very long time; we may find we need exceptional tolerance and understanding.

If the child's other parent is involved

The child's birth-parents may be drawn together at the dying and death of their child, perhaps even feeling that their child might still be alive if the marriage had survived. Either of the birth-parents may feel responsible for the death of their child, or that the other was to blame, and there may be feelings of anger, guilt, remorse and failure. These emotions may last for months or years. There may also be practical difficulties to be resolved, such as the wording on the headstone reflecting recognition and acceptance of both birth- and step-parents' deep feelings towards the child.

Some of us may have been deeply involved in raising the child, and could then feel excluded if the birth-parents come together to make the funeral arrangements. We may also be concerned about the possibility of the birth-parent continuing their involvement with our partner when the immediate practical need for meeting has passed.

Although our own feelings will be hard to cope with, hopefully we will be able to give comfort to our partner by our physical presence, reassurance and affection.

Surviving children

Sometimes the other children turn to us for guidance, support and reassurance. They may want to talk about their parents' grief, and about their dead sister or brother, perhaps sharing feelings they cannot express elsewhere. We can encourage the surviving children not to feel guilty that they are still alive. We will also be able to help them by taking an interest in their everyday lives and activities while our partner is finding it difficult to take their usual part in family life. We should try to ensure that other children in the family, or families, are included at this time, sharing tears and laughter, difficult and good memories. The Compassionate Friends (TCF) produces a leaflet, Our Surviving Children, that may be helpful.

Future children

Some of us will be planning to have children in this new relationship. It could be painful to see the earlier death and its grief cast a shadow over our partner's feelings, as the memories fears and anxieties are carried forward. We may be able to help him or her by finding ways to talk through the past loss. If we can do this, we will be able to look to the future together while not forgetting what has gone before.

Grandparents (birth and step)

The child who died may have spent more time with one set of grandparents. All the grandparents, however, can be a resource to the grieving family in their different ways, and can help to bring comfort and stability to its members, especially the children. If the children can feel supported by all their extended family, then the various generations and branches of the family may grow closer together.

Emotions and feelings

Death often evokes past losses, and each person's present grief will be affected by their own experiences. Our partner may have thought that feelings of loss relating to the end of the previous relationship were resolved, but now finds that painful issues are re-emerging, particularly so if he or she was widowed. It may be that our partner has lost his or her only child, whereas we have surviving children; this can bring complicated guilt feelings, particularly for long-term step-parents. We may find we are experiencing mixed feelings towards the child who died when we see how our partner and others in the family are suffering. Or we may regret that our relationship with the stepchild was not as cordial as we would have wished. Perhaps we find the child's personality incompatible with ours. Alternatively the child may have rejected us, despite our continuing overtures of friendship. It often helps to acknowledge these feelings by writing them down, perhaps in the form of a diary or in a letter to the dead child which no-one need see, and which we need not keep for ever.

These difficulties may cause painful rifts in our relationship as we struggle to adjust to the child's death

Even though we may feel isolated at times, particularly if we have joined the family recently, we are also in a unique position to be of positive, practical and emotional help within the household. However, while we are helping others in the family, remember that we too need support, perhaps from a friend or colleague who will allow us to talk about all that is going on at home. Reading about parental grief can be of value and may help us understand our partner's feelings and reactions. TCF produces many leaflets and other publications that may be helpful.

Hope for the future

For step-parents, the grief experience may be a precarious journey as we try to balance the needs of our partner, our own feelings and other family relationships. We do, however, have a supportive role to play and it is a time when patience, understanding and tolerance are of the utmost value.

Many step-parents have found hope for the future through TCF, sharing experiences, feelings and concerns with other parents, perhaps meeting, or corresponding with, other step-parents in an atmosphere of acceptance and friendship.

Suggested further reading, all available from our Postal Library:

Dearest Debbie (In Ai Lee)
Dale Evans Rogers, (1965, 1966) 1972
Old Tappan, New Jersey, USA, Spire Books/Fleming H. Revell

(author = adoptive parent)

First year of forever, The: surviving the death of our son

B. D. Van Vechten, (1982) 1987
Mentor, Ohio, USA, Dwight Publishing
ISBN: O-689-11317-X

(author = stepfather)

Intimate loneliness, An: supporting bereaved parents and siblings

Gordon Riches and Pam Dawson, 2000
Buckingham, Open University Press
ISBN: 0-335-19972-0 (pb)

(reference to stepfamilies in section headed ‘Parental grief, marital tension and gender' pp 60-71, specifically p 71)

Jenny: a father's story

Gerald R. Lishka, 1998
Lakeville, Minnesota, USA, Galde Press Inc.
ISBN: 1-880090-38-4

(author = adoptive parent)

So will I comfort you: support for bereaved parents, their families, friends and counsellors

Jenny Kander, 1990
Cape Town, Republic of South Africa, Lux Verbi
ISBN: 0 86997 338 X

(Part 1, Section C.2: The step-parent and bereavement, pp 69-73)

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