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Recent studies show that the loss of a parent by death may actually be less devastating to young people than losing a parent through divorce. There are a number of reasons for this, but I think my stepdaughter put it the most eloquently: a child is better able to understand the fact of biological death than the complex reasons why love and marriages fall apart. This does not mean children accept death easily, but often it is less confusing for them to deal with both emotionally and psychologically than trying to understand why their parents have left one another.
When a stepfamily later is created, this coming together of new relationships often exacerbates the previous sense of loss rather than assuaging it - as many of us who remarry have experienced. This is one of the reasons why looking at the experience of stepfamily life is so difficult. More often than not, individuals beginning a stepfamily are required to confront many painful issues at the onset, without much time for reflection. Children have to confront a parent who has gone away and is not always there; both young people and adults have to adjust to one another rapidly while still feeling like strangers; and a previous love that has failed and former family life must be relinquished forever. This makes the many issues of stepfamilies and stepfamily life all the more challenging to examine. And yet they have become the most widespread form of living structure in this country today.
Though my own experiences of being in a stepfamily are unique, I find in talking with individuals, both adults and children who are members of a stepfamily, there are some common threads and themes which run throughout. Frequently what is most common is meeting complicated situations and unexpected emotions abruptly and head on. The more I work with people, the more I wonder: What is a "family" today? Even more importantly: What is a "stepfamily"? Curiously, the latter word is not included in standard American dictionaries though stepmother, stepfather, and stepchildren are. This is more than strange considering the growing number of stepfamilies in this country and around the world and the fact that stepfamilies and extended families are today's reality; they are not the anomaly but most decidedly the norm.
We now have many euphemisms for stepfamilies: remarried, recreated, reconstituted, recoupled, acquired, binocular, second family, non-nuclear family, non-biological family, blended. But those living in a stepfamily know they can be anything but blended in the sense of being mixed together smoothly. For some nothing could be farther from the truth. Put too many different colors together simultaneously and you may be in for some surprises, not all of which are pleasant. Frequently there are painful adjustments to be made in stepfamily life for which we are not adequately prepared - if we are prepared at all. Stepfamilies can hurt in a lot of places, and it is important to address this and the confusion which often results after remarriage with open eyes, even more importantly with open hearts.