The title of this article by Paula Stephens “What I Wish More People Understood About Losing a Child” quickly caught my attention on my friend, Lisa Payne’s Facebook page the other day. With the article, Lisa posted “I haven’t lost a child. I know people who have…While I felt the article was well-written and insightful, I do not know if it accurately depicts the feelings of those who have suffered this type of loss…” in preparation for her Pastoral Care final.
Unfortunately, I know this type of loss…from a different angle. The perspective I am about to share with you is from a unique position – the step-parent.
My tendency is to begin with “My husband, Besh, lost his son in 2012 due to a motorbike accident” but what I’d really like to say, for the purpose of this article, is “I lost my 30-year-old step-son, Carl Beshara, in 2012.”
Since that awful day in September I have been on the wildest roller coaster ride of my life. I know I will never be able to completely get over the shock and Besh will never be the same again. The “new normal” as they call it…and that’s the closest description there is.
I wasn’t fond of the term “step-parent” from the minute I married into my two “kids”, Carl (21) and Tiffany (17) – flashbacks to Disney movies with evil step-mothers or something. I had always said I wanted kids who were already born, could take care of themselves and we could hang around, have a drink and a laugh. And that’s exactly what I got. These kids were already cool independent people who didn’t need a step-mother and I wasn’t looking to be a mother either so it was a perfect match!
So for almost 10 years, these 2 kids became a big part of my life equation without me even realizing what had developed along the way.
Then when we got the call late one Saturday night on Labour Day weekend, I automatically and instinctively went into support mode for Besh and Tiffany. I just needed to make sure they were okay. That was all I could concentrate on and that was my sole purpose through all this. It helped me survive the shock, I realize now.
As I said to Lisa on Facebook “The hardest part is to just be with someone while they’re falling apart without trying to make them better.”
I hadn’t noticed that in this process I had put my own feelings of loss on the back burner. This was the ‘for better or for worse’ situation at its finest. I needed to be strong. How could I be a wreck on a day where Besh was feeling good? I just couldn’t do it to him…or me. Those happy moments are so precious after a life shock that we have to let them happen as long as they can…before reality and sadness hits again.
That being said, I still had/have my moments of tears and Besh has said many times, “It’s okay for you to be sad too.” And I know it’s true but it’s still difficult sometimes. I have cried and do cry, but it would usually be while I was talking about Besh and Tiffany’s loss. Their loss makes me the saddest – even more than my own.
The awareness of my unique position came to me awhile after Carl passed away when my longtime friend, Carolyn, asked me one day how Besh was doing and out of my mouth fired “What about how I’m doing?” I shocked myself! Her eyes filled up with tears because she realized she hadn’t even asked about me all this time. We both cried and I talked about how hard it is to juggle all these things at once – being strong, holding the space, hoping with all my heart that Besh is going to survive this and practically praying for Tiffany to find her happiness and live a good life…and experiencing my personal loss.
Sometimes I felt guilty talking about my grief even when the time was right. I thought ‘How can you talk about your pain when it wasn’t even your son?’ It was a self-imposed comparative dialogue in my head that I just couldn’t shake.
2 ½ years later, having done a lot of inner work and accepting that Besh and Tiffany are okay and they will survive, I’m finding I can feel and talk about my own pain a little more, with less guilt and hesitation. I believe that if they can survive this then I certainly can too.
What I have also learned through this process is that the grief of a step-parent is under-acknowledged and has to wait its turn sometimes. It’s just the way it is and it makes sense.
So my advice for those of you who know a step-parent who has lost one of their kids – from time to time, ask them how they are doing and just let them cry and spill when they break down in front of you. Stay with them knowing there is nothing you can do to make them feel better but just asking them how they are doing acknowledges their loss too. And that helps to mend the wound.
2018 update (6 years almost to the day): I’m happy to say that we all survived this horrible time in our life. Tiffany has taken life by the reigns and is doing great. Besh lives a full life for Tiffany and because Carl would want him to. I’m still in shock but am putting the pieces back together. Of course, the sadness still lingers and it always will, especially Labour Day Weekend, but we always spend that weekend with family and friends to get a good dose of love. We still cry and we talk about it when those feelings bubble to the surface. Time (and acceptance of those things you cannot change) has helped immensely.
I also wanted to add that this article applies to step-parents who have lost their step-children to divorce. I didn’t think of this angle when I wrote this article but I have received so many heartfelt stories that I felt I should mention it here. Yes, the child hasn’t died, but they are gone from your life. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you have loved them as your own all those years. My heart goes out to you too.
Also, please read the comments below to know you are not alone. The feelings you are experiencing are real and are shared by many in the same situation. There’s not much support out there for step-parents in particular, but your position in this crazy time is very important. You are the glue when your family’s world has been turned upside down. Take a deep breath, bunker down, be strong, express with patience and love, and take good care of yourself. Go for walks, make healthy food, and encourage your family to do the same. But at the very least, do it for yourself 🙂
And please feel free to offer any suggestions below in the comments of how to help deal with this or post any articles or support groups you have found in this process.