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Today's Family Magazine

Helping your new stepchildren deal with the loss of a parent

By Tami Reeves

Coming into a family who “lost” their mother to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease was no easy task.  Assuring each child and their father that I would never try to replace her was a challenge, but being loving and patient made all the difference.  And in hindsight, I’ve learned the way you handle delicate situations during such a tragic time will not only impact relationships you have with your loved ones, but also the relationship you have with yourself.  There are a lot of things you can do to ease the pain, and it’s important to take it day by day.

In the beginning, it is imperative to gain the children’s trust through their relationships with the deceased parent. Building this trust is key for giving the child a “safe place” to talk about the late parent without feeling they are hurting the new one.  It’s in the sharing of memories that affords them the chance to realize that such memories are not only esteemed and cherished by them, but by you as well. Embracing those precious recollections as much as you embrace them signifies you are honoring their late parent’s legacy and devoted to keeping their memory alive.

Whenever they were comfortable, I spoke openly with my stepchildren about their mother. Learning about the time they had together enabled me to truly grasp the loss they were experiencing and share in our love for her.  It showed them I wasn’t resentful of their mother and would never intend to try and replace her.  By participating in these conversations, I wanted them to know how much I appreciated their love for her and I didn’t want them to stop loving her just because I was now in the picture.

Belongings of the deceased parent should not all be tossed aside. The collections and memorabilia children associate with their late parent should be given special attention in the home – especially if it was also the home of the deceased.  Children should step into the home and know their deceased parent is being honored and their life is being remembered. Knowing their mementos have not become a memory as well, and are held onto and outwardly displayed, can often bring a sense of peace and solace.

The holiday season can be a perfect time to do this.  My stepchildren’s late mother had a beautiful collection of Santa Claus statues and Christmas decorations.  I promptly found a special area in the house to showcase them, highlighting the display with vibrant Christmas lights as a final touch.  It was a place where everyone in the family could reminisce about certain pieces which perhaps held personal meaning.  Giving them a place to feel their mother’s presence during that time of year was, to me, a beautiful way of letting my stepchildren know that I embraced their mother. 

Pictures and family photos should remain displayed as they were – at least for a while.  The transition of a new parent is difficult enough for the children, without having to disrupt the evidence of the history on the walls and fireplace mantels of home.  New memories and photos could and should be added to the mix, but the deceased parent’s picture should never be completely removed.  In doing so, one might feel that the parent was forgotten about, as if they didn’t matter anymore.  Additionally, the children could perceive this vacancy as a message the parent needs to be forgotten.  By keeping the photos displayed, the children will take comfort in knowing their love and memories should never fade.

After my stepchildren’s mother had passed, I made sure there will still several framed photos of her throughout the house.  Their mother was, after all, the reason I had children and grandchildren to love.  Displaying the family photos was a way to honor their past and to keep their mother’s memory alive. 

Forging relationships with the deceased’s extended family, keeps their memory alive – for everyone. If the grandparents, aunts and uncles all played pivotal roles in the lives of the children, maintaining the children’s relationships with the extended family is essential to a healthy and smoother transition.  If the new parent is awarded the opportunity to begin relationships with them, those new connections can bet yet another way to embrace the late parent.  It signals to children that their late parent’s history is (and always will be) important.  The feeling of family that was created because of these new relationships is not only rewarding for all involved, but also furthers the mission of keeping the family intact.

It’s never easy to be a stepparent, especially following a tragic loss.  But I truly believe that as the new parent, one needs to make a concerted effort to embrace the parent who is no longer living and to help the children see those intentions.  Because, in the end, there will only be positive outcomes from those efforts – the love and trust of your children will grow, the family will slowly learn to heal, and perhaps most importantly, the memory and essence of the deceased will continue on.

Tami Reeves is the author of "Bleeding Hearts: A True Story of Alzheimer's, Family, and the Other Woman."

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