My stepson Will and daughter-in-law, Kirsten, were driving in from Dallas to stay at our house over Christmas for several days. Even though Robbie and I had been married for a couple of years, this was their first visit during the holidays. I knew it was going to be hard for them.

Christmas is full of sorrow in a blended family. For us, it means grieving the death of both previous spouses. For others, it means grieving the separation of mom and dad.

“Coming home” for the holidays doesn’t really exist for children who have lost a parent or whose parents have divorced. Everything is different than the childhood home they remember. Mom’s special cookies are gone. The crazy gifts she used to give won’t be coming. Holidays are less of something to look forward to, and more so a glaring reminder of days long gone, no hope of returning again for the rest of our lives.

A stepparent’s presence at Christmas is just another reminder that the one the children loved is gone. No matter how hard a stepmom works to make her home a welcoming, warm place during the holiday season, there will always be an element of sorrow.

But that’s okay. Just because there is sorrow doesn’t mean there can’t also be love and joy. We humans are complicated creatures, able to feel conflicting emotions all at once. Sometimes that gets us into trouble, but sometimes it can be a great benefit if we just let the emotions mingle. Here are some helpful hints I have learned over the years.

First, embrace the sorrow that comes with stepfamily get-togethers.

In my family’s case, we have to deal with the loss of our loved ones through death. But divorce situations are just as filled with grief. Though both spouses may be alive, grief is more than just the sadness from death. Grief is the devastation we feel when our plans for the future are destroyed. It’s the pain we feel when life didn’t turn out the way we thought it would or should. It’s the helplessness we feel when we realize we have no control over the circumstances, and no matter what we do, nothing can change it.

Our culture assumes Thanksgiving and Christmas are supposed to be a time of peace, happiness, and warm fuzzies. But getting a stepfamily together for the holidays is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, only to find you have a bunch of missing pieces. No matter how lovely the picture turns out to be, there is some sadness and frustration that the puzzle will never be complete.

The trick to the holidays is not to try to smooth over grief but to acknowledge it. Galatians 6:2 tells us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Talk to your stepchildren about missing their mom. Laugh at their stories of her and ask questions. I don’t ever expect my stepchildren to act like they are glad she isn’t here. I even wish for their sakes she was still with us. These conversations mean we must endure sadness at Christmas, but it also means we share love.

Second, treat stepchildren with consideration.

In traditional families, relationships form naturally. But in blended families, it takes diligence—forgiveness, understanding, and the willingness to push through uncomfortable moments. For most people, we have a built-in tendency to avoid awkward situations, and that means withdrawing, leaving the room, remaining silent and guarded during conversations. For stepparents to act this way, it comes across as cold, rude, and spiteful.

We must do our best to treat stepchildren with openness and interest, even if it means there will be an embarrassing moment or two. This means asking lots of questions and caring as much about their Christmas as you do for your own biological kids. Find out what kind of candy they like, or if they would like to contribute any family traditions. For younger kids, consider starting your own traditions. Be willing to let go of your own expectations to accommodate some of theirs.

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Third, center Christmas around the true meaning.

Somewhere along the way, Christmas became about creating the perfect day, and perhaps that’s why it’s so hard on stepfamilies—brokenness is not perfect. But let us remember what Christmas is really about: the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the One who was perfect so that we wouldn’t have to be.

And that’s good news for all families, not just stepfamilies.

We can take all our sorrows and griefs to the foot of the manger, and thank God a time is coming when there will be no more pain, no more tears. And while we’re on this earth, we can forgive and forget; we can love, even when we’re not loved; we can bear one another’s burdens, just as He did for us. And our stepfamilies can be a testament to the very reason we celebrate.

The Christmas my husband’s son and his wife came was one of the best memories we all have together. Even at times when tension has existed between us, we all remember that Christmas as a holiday of unexpected ease.

Those moments won’t always happen, but when they do, keep them close to your heart. They will remind you in hard times that happy stepfamily holiday moments are possible, and with prayer, grace, and a whole lot of patience, there may be many more to come.

Copyright © 2018 by Sabrina McDonald. Used with permission.