The step father, or should we say step parent, role is very unique in the situation when a young child is lost. Through marriage you gained a spouse and a family whom you consider your own and now you are faced with the most horrible situation any family could endure: the loss of a child.
While my situation was somewhat different it had many similarities. I married Jen many years after Johnathon passed away. So, I was not present when he passed away. I have only read medical records and listened as Jen has finally begun to grieve. However, I spent over 35 years in public safety and cannot count the young children I have tried to resuscitate or seen after they have died from a traumatic or medical event. Each of those had parents, of which many I was responsible along with other medical or law enforcement personnel, had to be told the news their child had died and would not be coming home. I attended many funerals and was visited by many families trying to find answers.
When Jen and I became friends, she told me about Johnathon and much of the story behind his passing. He was a SIDS baby (one who dies from an undetermined cause) and she still had many questions. We visited his grave and I sat with her as she talked to him. Many days we took one of her other children and I watched them try to talk to and understand the loss of a sibling they had never known. We made Easter and Christmas decorations for the grave and we took balloons on his birthday. I sat and talked with the youngest daughter and tried to help her to understand who Johnathon was and why he died.
While different there were similarities. Jen was in a prior marriage and her husband did not believe in the cultural symbolism of a cemetery and thus Jen was limited to infrequent visits to Johnathon’s grave. Additionally, Johnathon was not a topic of discussion as “he was a deceased and thus no longer with us”. In reality, Jen was never allowed to grieve or even talk through her emotions. As we became close friends, fell in love and got married I learned more and more about Johnathon and saw Jen finally begin the grieving process. So, while it was many years later, I was by marriage the step-father and husband who was there to help my wife through the loss of a child I had never met.
I can tell you this was not a scenario for which I was prepared, but I willingly took the responsibility to do the best I could. There is no definitive text book to tell you how to fill the role but there are references that may be of assistance. Many of these books are listed on the references page of this website. I read each one and add additional resources as I find them and make sure they are beneficial.
Step fathers, and step mothers, are in a unique circumstance. You have by marriage been asked to fill the role of mother or father and now face how to assist your family through this loss. As I said there are many references but no exact text book on grief, family support or recovery. Counseling is also an option but may be cost prohibitive or finding a counselor specializing in this area may be difficult. Look to the church if you have church involvement, discuss with your employer family EAP that may be covered under your health care insurance.
As this is not your biological child there is a public sense that you should not be affected the same as the biological parent. This is not true. You married the mother or father of the child and with that you took on the role of step parent and probably love this child as if it was your own. So yes, it will affect you in a similar fashion. You took the role of parent and in your mind assumed the responsibility to ensure the child grew up safe and healthy and was able to achieve the greatest of potential. Yet something happened and now the child has died. You feel equally responsible and need to remember you need to grieve also while providing support to your spouse and potentially the deceased child’s siblings. Just as you try to help your spouse and get him or her counseling, don’t forget yourself.
Studies have shown that 16% of families who have a child die end up divorcing. (Healing through the decades after a child dies.” Stacy Parker, 2019, www.opentohope.com) This is due to multiple reasons which may include spousal blame for the child’s death, grieving differences or marital issues prior to the death. Don’t let your family become one of the 16% due to the loss. While each of you may grieve differently, don’t forget to grieve together. While one may prefer church and the other may prefer a counselor don’t forget to find common ground and a mechanism to grieve and recover together. And don’t forget the siblings. They need to grieve to and may not truly understand death and their emotions. Your role of step parent may switch to be one of best friend or big brother/sister.
Spousal blame is common in scenarios when the death is from an accident or is undetermined. Johnathon’s cause of death was undetermined (SIDS) and thus was investigated by law enforcement. Jen spent many years blaming herself for Johnathon’s death and wondering is she had done anything wrong. While the death maybe from an unfortunate and possibly unpreventable accident, or a gene which gave the child a medical condition that may have led to the child dying: Stand together, grieve together and get help together.
There may be other siblings in the family and they may look to find blame as they grieve. Remember you took the role as parent and they are looking to you, in their own way, to help them understand and move forward. On top of church or counseling assistance they may need a big brother or sister and look to you to fill that role as they grieve and heal.
The healing process is slow and may have setbacks. While Johnathon would have been 24 this year, we are experiencing many firsts as you will also. The first birthday, holiday, anniversary of the child’s death etc. to name a few. Each is tough and you will find a way to get through them in a way that helps the family to heal. Each is a setback in the grieving process but once each passes the next will be a little easier. We had a small tree for Johnathon at Christmas and will have a small cake to celebrate his birthday later this month.
Please take a moment and review the references I have asked Jen to include on the “Reference Page”. I read each before recommending them. I can be reached by contacting the Foundation by phone or through the “Contact Us” page. If I can be of any assistance please contact me.
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