Stepfamilies are created because of a loss. Death, divorce, or the ending of a relationship happens before a new marriage begins. Step-couples have many hopes and dreams for a second chance and are not anticipating the loss and grief dynamics that inevitably surface during stepfamily formation. The juxtaposition of the couple feeling happiness while also experiencing the residual grief from the previous marriage and unresolved family of origin dynamics can create havoc and confusion.
Adults can be surprised by the reactions of their children before and after the marriage ceremony. The physical merging of two families can create hope for the children for a new family, while simultaneously instigate grief and loss. Likewise, lay counselors, pastors, and professional counselors working with stepfamilies can become confused by these dynamics.
Children grieve differently than adults, adding another layer of confusion to stepfamily formation. When children exhibit anger, sadness, acting out or acting in behaviors, it can be perplexing when they may have expressed excitement about the stepfamily. Developmentally, children and teens may not understand their thoughts or behaviors in response to a parent’s remarriage. Depending on the age of the child and their emotional maturity, the grief symptoms may look very different. Some have the capacity to articulate what they are experiencing, while others may not. Adult children may also be surprised by their grief reactions to a parent’s remarriage after death or divorce of their parents.
Like any family, stepfamilies celebrate holiday celebrations, graduations, weddings, the birth of a child, of grandchildren, a child or teen’s baseball or soccer game, or a birthday. However, these types of events can remind an adult or child of the death or divorce. Scenes from the past can erupt in the most untimely and surprising fashion.
Giving families a roadmap and teaching them the stepping stones of grief and loss can be of great assistance. Change can be another form of loss and stepfamilies usually, go through tremendous change. Change happens most rapidly during stepfamily formation. However, even stepfamilies of many years can experience significant and painful life changes. The stepping stones of grief and loss are as follows:
In my counseling practice, I help stepfamily members identify the changes and the losses. I also teach them the process of grieving and how God honors our obedience to face these scenes from our past. I believe that God wants to heal all the wounds in our lives and He wants each of us to grow, not just survive our past. I also believe that God wants us to learn from our past so we can be more effective for Him in the present. When I teach my clients how to use the stepping stones of grief, they can apply these principles when the inevitable stumbling stones of grief, loss or change appears.
Janet Nicholas, LPC LCDC EAP, is a licensed professional counselor, chemical dependency counselor, and equine-assisted psychotherapist. Her practice is in The Woodlands, Texas. She has been counseling families and individuals since 1989. Stepfamilies are one of her areas of specialty. As a counselor, wife, mother, stepmother and grandmother, Janet has dedicated herself to the betterment of others and is lovingly characterized as someone who gives “straight talk from the heart.” Her book, Stepping Stones to a Healthy Stepfamily is being released in March 2017. In her spare time, she paints and rides horses with her husband of thirty-three years on their beautiful ranchette.