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Resurrected Pain

Be prepared to face loss as you celebrate the holidays.
By Ron L. Deal


The holidays are hard for the Deal family. Since our son Connor died in February 2009, Christmas has just not been the same.  He was only 12 when he left us. Sometimes I still wonder,  How can our family go through the motions of our annual traditions without Connor? How do we find the “joy of the season” when there’s still so much sorrow in our hearts?

Most likely you, too, have been through a significant loss in your life. I know your children or stepchildren have. And whether we like it or not, the magic of the holidays resurrects our pain. Loss is central to the stepfamily experience. I suggest you get prepared to face it, especially during this time of year.

The enduring nature of loss

Whether your loss came this past year or 10 years ago, you won’t “get over it.” You will only get through it. Loss endures. And special family occasions, like the holidays, remind us once again of what is no more.

A deceased parent will be missed this time of year with extra tears. A family fractured by divorce will once again feel the pain of being emotionally splintered into two houses. Children will reminisce about what was and what could have been, while reprocessing how they feel about the new stepfamily members in their lives. And grandparents will wish the family could once again be all together. When the awkwardness of holiday activities confronts, stepparents may again evaluate the realities of life and their lost expectations. 

Because loss is enduring, these types of responses are inevitable; they should not be avoided. But the fragile nature of stepfamily living sometimes leads people to deny resurrected pain or try to “fix” others who experience it. Grandparents, for example, might assume that a child who cries once again over the loss of the original family just needs a well designed word that will make everything better.

Even worse, insecure parents may emotionally punish a child for not being loyal to the new family. For example, when learning that his adult children questioned whether they would attend a pre-Christmas party that included their stepmother’s adult children and grandchildren, one father threatened not to attend his grandchild’s Christmas play. He thought by threatening to emotionally withdraw himself he could encourage his adult children to accept his new wife. How misguided!

Loss does not need to be fixed. It needs to be expressed—and received with compassion.  Also, loss is a great teacher. For example, it has the power to deepen our walk with the Lord, reprioritize our life, and remind us what matters most.

This holiday, don’t squash your grief (or anyone else’s). God will teach you much if you will pay attention to your loss and listen.

TAKING ACTION

Don’t be afraid of your own feelings of loss and don’t fear listening to those of others. After all, the process of “bearing with one another” is how we survive grief (Galatians 6:2). Here are some things to remember when responding to loss:

1. Give permission to grieve and use the holidays as a springboard to conversation about loss. For example, a stepparent might say to a child, “I noticed that you’re not getting to spend as much time this year with your dad and his parents. I bet that makes you sad.” (Pause and wait for a response.)  Or, while engaged in a holiday tradition that started before the stepfamily began, one might say, “I know this reminds you of (missing family member). Tell me a story about when you used to do this activity together.”  These small conversations give someone permission to grieve and connect emotionally. Plus, when communicated by a stepparent, they engender respect, care for the person, and may actually facilitate the new stepfamily relationships.

2. Model sadness. Adults should talk openly about their sadness and freely express their tears. This communicates that it is okay for others to do the same, but more importantly, it models for younger children appropriate ways of grieving.

3. Coach children in healthy grieving. Labeling the emotions of children helps them learn to identify the emotion in themselves. For example: “I’ve noticed that since coming home from your mom’s house you are pretty irritable. I’m wondering if you are missing her a lot lately.” A child who has been acting angry in this situation can now deal with sadness, a necessary action if they are ever to stop being inappropriately angry and irritable. 

4. Act in kindness. Consider what might minister to someone’s grief and act accordingly. A stepfamily member might encourage, “I know your sister’s family is only here for a short time. Why don’t you spend extra time with them and I’ll manage the children for a while.” 

5. Don’t take it personally. Stepparents need to disconnect from the pain of their stepchildren during the holidays. A child’s sadness for what has been lost is not necessarily a rejection of you. Don’t make it about you; keep it about them. 

6. Manage your guilt. Biological parents can become frozen by their children’s sadness. Yes, their pain may be a result of your past choices, but don’t allow that guilt to paralyze you from setting reasonable limits and enforcing rules. Permissiveness does not heal pain.

© 2009 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

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Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit www.RonDeal.org and www.FamilyLife.com). 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g., ABCNews.com, Today.com), in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.

 

 

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