The article “What I Wish More People Understood About Losing a Child” by Paula Stephens caught my attention on my friend’s Facebook page the other day. Unfortunately, I know this type of loss…but from the unique and often forgotten perspective of 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, 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 (20) and Tiffany (16) – 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.
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 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 and practically praying for Tiffany to find her happiness and live a good life…and experiencing my personal loss. Besides losing Carl, I wondered if Besh and I would make it.
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, but we can’t completely bury our own feelings in the process.
Even though you may feel very alone, know you are not alone (read the comments below). The feelings you are experiencing are real and crazy. 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. You may even have to work with/around your partner’s ex (your step-child’s other biological parent) which can mean biting your tongue to help make things happen as smooth as possible. It’s a tough road.
And sometimes you’re not going to have enough energy to be of any help. Take a deep breath, express with patience and love, and forgive yourself when you skip those reminders. You’re only human. Take good care of yourself: Go for walks, cry in the woods, stretch, get lost in making healthy food, and include your partner and family when possible. Keeping in mind every person needs to go at their own pace, no matter how much we want and encourage them to do things that are good for themselves. But at the very least, do it for yourself.
On a final note, if 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 if they break down in front of you. Just be there and listen. Don’t fill the space with a related story of someone else’s loss. It doesn’t help. Stay with them knowing there is nothing you can do to make them feel better. Just asking them how they are doing acknowledges their loss. And that helps to mend the wound.
PS: I wanted to add that this article applies to step-parents who have lost their step-children to divorce and other circumstances. I didn’t think of those angles when I wrote this article but I have received so many heartfelt stories of legal and physical separation from step-children, that I felt I should acknowledge it here. Yes, the child hasn’t passed away, but they are gone from your life. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you have loved them all those years. My heart goes out to you.
2018 (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 well travelling the world. 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.
2020: Turns out the saying is true, time is a healer. Things aren’t so raw now. We can usually tell stories about the times we all had together without falling apart…in fact, we can laugh at some of the funny memories now. I would not have thought that possible even a few years ago. And we still cry. Besh and I are stronger as a couple than we’ve ever been. We worked hard for that.
PATIENCE & UNDERSTANDING IS KEY
People trying to console can and do say the dumbest things during horrible life events. I’ve heard a ton of doozies since 2012, but I keep in mind they are only trying to connect or relate. They are nervous and frantic, trying their best in an awful situation (I’ve heard some epic fails). At least they are trying, is what I tell myself. I’ve been on the other side of the fence grasping to say something worthwhile to console someone else. I have become way more patient with people. I have chuckled in my head quite a few times over the years which makes me not want to punch them in the face…I’d call that a success!
Feel free to tell your story in the comments below. Perhaps it can help your healing by telling your story outside of friends and family. And it helps others in similar situations. Post any articles or support groups you have found in this process. Much love to you!