There are several reasons that I’m writing a book about stepparenting children who have lost a parent.  A huge one is because I believe that this type of grief changes a lot of dynamics in the stepfamily as compared to a divorce situation.  There is no book dedicated to the topic of stepparenting grieving children.

Why is stepparenting after a death different than stepparenting after divorce?  After all, stepfamily members in both divorce and death situations experience various kinds of losses.  Am I saying that the loss of a parent is worse than the loss of a child’s former home, or the loss of living full time with Daddy?

No.  Not exactly.  There’s no way to quantify the severity of the losses suffered when marriages break up and families must find ways to carry on.  However, my research shows that stepparents of grieving children have some singular issues to consider.  Most of those revolve around how this type of loss affects the children, while other issues grow out of some role confusion because the ex-spouse is not physically present.

Here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • Many children in divorced families have regular contact with both parents.  Grieving children also need “contact” with both parents. How can a stepparent encourage creative ways to keep the kids’ relationship with the deceased parent alive?
  • Related to helping kids continue their bonds with both parents, did you know you were signing up for this job when you married into the family?
  • When kids of divorce see both parents, they witness their shining traits and their faux pas.  When a parent dies, the children tend to idolize the dead parent with intense feelings of loyalty, which makes it really hard and scary for them to bond with even the most loving, supportive stepparent.
  • Bereaved children can have difficulty trusting others, especially trusting any level of permanency.  They may be more hesitant about intimate relationships than divorced children.  A natural question for bereaved children to ask is, “Who’s going to die next?”  They question the surviving parent’s mortality, and even their own mortality.  I came down with pneumonia when my stepdaughter was about eight, and she immediately wanted to know if I was going to die.  Her mother had passed away from cancer when she was six.
  • It’s more than a bit challenging for the stepparent to resist stepping into the role created by the loss of a parent.  When a child is moving back and forth between houses, or even simply calling to speak to their mom or dad on a regular basis, that parental role is more concrete than when a parent dies.

I believe that under divorce circumstances it’s easier for a stepparent to accept that she doesn’t fill the parent role. But after a death, don’t the kids – especially younger kids ? need that parent’s role to be filled?  Ahhhhh…here’s a trap.  The answer is, not necessarily.  The answer is, only if your stepkids want you in that role. A few will, but many don’t because of the loyalty issue.

Grieving stepfamilies have to work hard at making the invisible visible so that the deceased parent still has a presence in the house.  Though stepmom might have many daily responsibilities that simulate the mother role, she still has to re-focus her energies and expectations because she is not, and never will be, the children’s mother.  She needs to carve out another role in the family, such as guidance counselor or confidante. Stepdad can step into roles such as fishing buddy or mentor. (or, vice versa – a stepmom can also be an awesome fly fisherwoman!)

That, my colleagues and friends, is grieving stepfamilies 101.  I look forward to your comments.

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in Northern Colorado.  For more information on her stepparenting book, go to

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