Saturday, June 30, 2012

Stepfamilies and the Cycle of Grief

In step and blended families there is a cycle of grief, the healthy, natural emotional-physical-mental process which allows us to successfully deal with divorce or the death of a mate(major tangible and invisible losses for everyone), heal the pain, and eventually move on. Mourning these cannot be hurried, but can be slowed or stopped by inner and outer forces. Such blockage promotes personal anxiety, major relationship tensions, and sometimes even physical illness. Additionally, when biological parents both remarry, they and their kids have two new sets of major changes to deal with on top of those from their biological family shattering.

Losses Happen Naturally Over Time

Our lives are given structure by emotional bonds to special people, things, beliefs, dreams, and activities. Most, or perhaps all, major life changes cause losses of these bonds—and (usually) some gains. For example, childbirth causes the loss of sleep, energy, social freedoms, financial flexibility, “non-parent” identity, space, etc. Puberty ends sexual innocence and infertility, among other things. School graduations reduce youthful irresponsibility. Job firings, changes, or retirement force changes of identity, security, income, and perhaps self-respect. Major illness or disability ends wellness and choices such as mobility and independence. Thus the need to grieve recurs often over the lifespan of any person and family.

Our Losses are Physical and Invisible

Tangible losses from family breakup and remarriage abound: pets, dens, rocking chairs, neighborhoods, fireplaces, gardens, cars, tree houses, pictures, nooks, utensils, schools, window seats, holiday ornaments, and so on. Large and small, concrete losses can have enormous emotional impact on kids and adults. This may be felt in advance, or only after the things are clearly gone.

Invisible losses cause emotional holes in our lives which are just as painful as physical partings. They cannot be held, photographed, or recorded. The following are examples of invisible losses.

Relationships: Even if a griever still sees important relatives or friends after divorce or remarriage, the prior quality of some relationships may be lost because of anger, guilt, judgment, distrust, geographic distance, loyalty conflicts, etc.

Perhaps the most agonizing family-separation and divorce loss is LOVE: the priceless feeling of being special, appreciated, supported, desired, companioned, and preferred by a rare other—and feeling the same about them. That loss is usually sustained well before marital and biological family separation. Loss of self-love is just as agonizing.

A normal adult relationship loss is that of romance. This seems to happen naturally within several years after a love partnership begins. In a healthy situation, the gradually growing “hole” it leaves is well filled by a calmer, deeper, and richer love.

More common invisible divorce or death, and remarriage loses are:

Lost roles, status, and identity: For example, “I used to be the smartest/fastest/youngest/favorite/funniest/only (child/boy/girl) in our family, but now I’m not”; or, “I never thought I’d have a divorced child, much less be a grandparent to someone else’s kids”; or, “I used to be their daughter-in-law. Now I’m not sure I’m even a friend ...”; or, “Yesterday, I was single and childless. Today, I’m married, a stepparent of three, and have an ex-spouse-in-law.” Both divorce and remarriage cause many unseen role and rank losses (and gains).

Lost respect for self or others: For example, “We’ve never had a divorce in our family—I’ve failed as a (parent/Christian)”; or, “Mommy and Daddy are divorcing because I was bad”; or, “I’m weird because I’m starting to love my stepparent as much as my real (Mom/Dad)”; or, “Now this marriage is starting to feel rocky; something must be really wrong with me”; or, “My spouse lets his/her ex walk over her/him, s/he’s a wimp!”

Lost faith and trust: When personal tragedy strikes, some people find their faith in themselves, their God, friends, or families strongly shaken or gone. Trust that their world is safe and nurturing can vanish for a season or a lifetime. Major childhood abuses and parental deprivations wreck a child’s basic trust in men, women, caregivers, or authority figures.

A related loss is the ability to build and share true intimacy. Without this, marital love starves after romance fades. If denied and unhealed, distrust and the resulting intimacy blocks are the root causes of divorce, and re-divorce.

Lost hopes, dreams, and ideals: For example, “(Mom and Dad/my son and his wife and family) will (stay happily married/get back together again)”; or, “My ex-spouse won’t ever (be happy/have a baby) with someone else”; or, “Divorce is for others, not for (me/us/my parents)”; or, “My kids will never (love/be raised by) another (parent/man/woman).”

Lost access and freedoms: For example, “Before I moved in with Jill, we got a lot of time together. With her kids always around now, we rarely get alone-time”; or, “Because there are six in our house now, I never get to use the (TV/bathroom/hair dryer/washer/den/PC/car, etc.)”; or, “Before my (Mom/Dad) remarried, I always stayed up past 10:30. Now my stepparent makes me go to bed too early! And I always used to snuggle with (Mom/Dad) in bed Sunday mornings, now I can’t.”

Lost privacy and solitude: For example, “When I was single, I had peace and quiet. With step-kids, the phone’s always ringing, the radio or TV’s blasting, and someone’s always yelling”; or, “With a stepparent and two step (brothers/sisters) around now, (Mom/Dad) and I have to be a lot more careful about being dressed and closing doors. I’m embarrassed when my step-(siblings) see my underwear when they help with the laundry.”

Lost rituals and traditions: For example, “We’ve always gone to Gram’s for Thanksgiving. Now we have to go to my (step-relative’s) house. The food’s different and it’s boring”; or, “I really miss going to worship with my children. I don’t think their stepparent cares if they go or not”; or, “Sharon always made this fantastic angel-food cake for my birthday. Joan’s not much into baking”; or, “I used to give each grandchild $20 for their birthdays. I can’t afford to do that for them and my four step-grandkids too, so I buy them all candy. It’s just not the same.”

Lost emotional security: For example, “Now that my kids are being co-raised by (a distant stepparent), I worry that they’ll stop caring for me”; or, “My real family didn’t stay together—I wonder if this one will”; or, “Before my ex remarried, the child support payment was like clock-work. Now it’s irregular and sometimes I have to call. What if it stops?”

Each of these abstract losses could have many more examples. Though they cannot be recorded, they all leave life holes that hurt just as much as tangible partings. They need the same kind of mourning to eventually heal. Their impact on your life adds up. Individually and together, invisible losses are much easier to ignore or minimize than concrete losses, especially in kids.

Some people believe that legal divorce proceedings and documents “end” a marriage. Some think that the (recordable) death of a spouse “ends” a committed relationship. Socially, legally, and physically, this is true in both cases. Unless surviving adults grieve their relationship well, though, they remain emotionally married. Child support, visitation, education, health, church, holiday, and custody negotiations can prolong an “after-marriage” relationship for years.

Hanging on to a mate, even with bitterness and abuse, often masks a deeper personal terror of truly saying good-bye to a cherished marital fantasy or a childhood caregiver. This often follows having felt agonizingly abandoned by key people early in life.

Sadly, it is common in many stepfamilies to find an ex-spouse or in-law who seems dedicated to persecuting their former mate or relative, regardless of the pain it causes any biological kids involved. This is often rooted in incomplete grief, mixed with shame and repressed anger at the mate and early caregivers. Such vindictive people usually come from agonizing childhoods and do not know it (or minimize it). Once protective denials are shattered, personal recovery programs can heal this blockage, over time.

Where former marriages and families are not well grieved by all survivors, remarriage of any partner will eventually and stressfully bring out the mourning block. We can mask—but not avoid—our losses and the searing wounds they bring.

Losses Happen In Different Ways

Some losses can be seen well in advance, like endings from graduations, marriages, births, moving to a new place, or job retirement. Yet even clear warning may not fully prepare some grievers because mentally imaging a loss is not the same as experiencing it. When partings are expected, we may either do anticipatory grieving or avoid recognizing the loss. When it actually occurs, the loss may have less impact if we begin our mourning process earlier.

Other losses happen very slowly, such as declining eyesight, agility, stamina, memory, respect, belief in a dream, job satisfaction, romance, or the quality of a marriage. The voids these cause enlarge gradually, which can camouflage early (unconscious) grief reactions. Often, conscious mourning starts when the griever becomes clearly aware of the gradual loss via some event.

Perhaps our most traumatic losses are those which happen without warning—like major accidents, firings, sudden illness or disability, unsuspected romantic affairs, and unexpected divorces. These normally trigger massive shock and chaos, at first. Adults and kids learning of divorce, remarriage, a new baby, adoptions, and home moves without forewarning can feel stunned and disoriented as the losses they create first begin to surface.

Usually, divorces and remarriages both create complex sets of expected and unexpected tangible and invisible losses. For example, there are dozens of myths about stepfamily life that commonly must be let go of and grieved. A common one is the gradual and painful loss of the dream that “my stepfamily will feel, act, and be just like a ‘regular’ biological family.” Do you know what your divorce and remarriage losses have been? Your kids’? Your ex’s? Your parents’?

The Impact of Losses Can Accumulate

On top of normal endings like graduations, and retirements, step-people have one or two extra sets of major losses to grieve. Biological parents and kids have lost their first-marriage family. Remarriage ends their absent-parent family or a single person’s independence.

Such endings each create big sets of concrete and invisible losses (and some gains!) for all bonded family members. If time, custom, or personal values have not let much grieving happen between one set of losses and the next, the stresses from them can merge. When they list their losses, most step-people are amazed at how many they have had in just a few years. The combined impacts of normal and extra tangible and invisible losses can feel overwhelming to kids and adults alike.

People Experience Losses Differently

The loss of solitude and privacy for a remarried single person may seem trivial to a parent not having much of either. The loss of a pet via divorce or remarriage can feel far more traumatic to a child than an adult. A busy parent may not think to help the child mourn. They may even criticize the child for “making a big thing out of nothing,” because they are uncomfortable with (or cannot relate to) the child’s intense feelings. This is especially true for adults who were discouraged from grieving well as a child. Men may often have low empathy for a woman’s feelings about divorce and remarriage losses—or for their own!

Also, adults may choose to endure losses because they are offset by wonderful gains like a new love, relief from anxieties and loneliness, and more social acceptance. Kids of divorce and remarriage usually do not choose their losses and may get far fewer benefits. It is often painful for parents to fully acknowledge this because they feel selfish, guilty, torn, and embarrassed.

To manage overwhelming pain or fear, many of us learn early to repress our feelings. People who have suffered repeated emotional or physical abuse or neglect can numb themselves without effort. They often deny doing so because it is unconscious. They may mentally acknowledge losses and “compute” what they feel, but are “dead below the neck.” Such emotionally paralyzed survivors can have trouble truly empathizing with other grievers. Other childhood-trauma survivors have no personal emotional boundaries and are overwhelmed with the intense emotions of other grievers.

Endings Always Create Beginnings

In the longing, ache, and sorrow of major loss, it is easy to overlook or undervalue the new options that always appear. Ending a marriage and household eventually frees or shifts time, energy, and commitments. Focusing on new beginnings too narrowly or too soon can really hinder good grief. Conversely, denying or ignoring our new choices can prolong the pain of losses. Balancing grief-work with recognizing and exploring new opportunities is a healthy personal and stepfamily adult goal.

What Is “Grieving”?

Children and adults naturally form bonds or attachments to special living, inanimate, and invisible things throughout their lives. Eventually these bonds break by choice or chance, causing minor to major invisible and physical losses.

Nature provides an automatic reflex to allow us to accept our losses and their impacts, and return to "normal" (a focused, clam, stable, balanced, purposeful) life again. Healthy grievers move through predictable phases in two or three levels, as they re-stabilize their emotions, thinking, and perhaps spiritual faith. Behavioral symptoms of these phases allow gauging a mourner’s progress - or lack of it.

It is a natural, predictable sequence of mental and emotional states that relieves the distress of loss over time. Noted British researcher John Bowlby feels that young children’s’ grieving has three emotional stages: protest, despair, and detachment. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who has studied and written widely on reactions to human death, names five adult states of mourning:

1. Shock, numbness, disorientation, and/or hysteria;

2. Irrational pleading, fantasizing, or bargaining ( “magic thinking”);

3. Anger and rage;

4. Sadness, apathy, despair, and depression; and eventually ...

5. Acceptance, and resuming life goals and activities.

We grievers can move through these stages in order, skip one or several for a while, or may move back and forth between them over time. We each have our own style.

By the way - medical research tells us that tears of joy differ chemically from tears of pain, because the latter contain compounds that cause depression and stress. By shedding these chemicals, crying is one of our body’s natural way of staying balanced during times of trauma. Blocking the urge to weep stresses us!

The other half of the grief process is a gradual shift from mental chaos to realistic, consistent clarity on some important questions: “What have I lost?” “Is it really gone for good?” “How and why did my loss(es) happen?” “Am I to blame? Could I or others have prevented it?” “Why did this happen to me? Why now? “What does this loss mean, how will it affect me? How will it impact others important to me?” “Can I replace my losses? How? At what cost or risk? Do I want to? When?”

Stepfamily adults can gently and patiently help young grievers - and each other - find their own answers to these questions over time. “Suggestions” help more than giving mourners “right” answers. Lack of clear, realistic answers to questions like these can block the final emotional grief step of acceptance. Acknowledging truths about key loss(es) can take a long time, because they can be so painful (“I’ll never have my birthday again the way we used to do it!”).

In her book Second Chances, psychologist Judith Wallerstein observes that it takes some kids 10 - 15 years to fully adjust to their complex set of losses from parental divorce and biological family restructuring.

In healthy (unblocked) mourning, the emotional and cognitive stages are eventually complete enough. Loss tensions gradually subside. Inner wounds heal, and holes start to refill. Each person’s unique needs, traits, and situations shape if and how this completion occurs, and how long it takes. Because mourning involves mind, body, and spirit, the conscious mind cannot speed it up. Yet, it can be unconsciously slowed or stopped.

Requisites for Healthy Mourning

So if we want to promote good grief in our lives and homes, what do we need? Six factors are key ingredients for most people and families:

Conscious awareness of our loss(es), their personal impact(s), and of the natural five-step, two-phase grief process

Confidence in surviving our loss(es), based on experience and faith

Commitment to healthy grieving as a personal priority, without excess guilt

Inner and outer permissions (support)

Times of solitude (with low distraction) to meditate, sort, and feel

And, time and patience

The more that some or all of these six factors are absent, the more likely a child or adult will move slowly through, or be frozen in, healing from their inevitable life losses. Let’s take a look at these factors more closely.

1. Building Awareness: Simply put, to facilitate good grief, we need to be able to name our tangible and invisible losses and our related feelings, clearly and specifically. We also need to be able to articulate the main impacts of these losses on our lives. These conscious awarenesses help us to reflect on, discuss, and vent about them. In the opening example, Jack was unable to do these for many years.

We usually find it easier to name our concrete losses. The invisible ones are easier to blur, discount or ignore. By the way, kids are either hindered at naming and explaining their losses and feelings (lacking concepts and vocabulary), or helped because they are freer than grownups to feel and vent.

Grievers normally need no awareness of the mourning process, any more than they need to understand their breathing or digestion. When grief gets blocked, however, the conscious knowledge of normal mourning dynamics helps to decide what is wrong and how to fix it.If parents get stuck in working through their divorce and remarriage losses, their kids are at risk of the same.

Because invisible losses (e.g., love, security, self-esteem, status) are so personally and socially powerful, the chance for blocking is higher than with some other endings. Remarrying adults need to know at least the symptoms of blocked mourning, if not the five grief stages.

Stepfamily adults can help kids mourn major partings by helping them name specific losses, their impact, and explaining the grief process in age-appropriate, positive terms. Doing so, and clearly modeling the five-step process, validates children’s feelings and raises their self-confidence. Such affirmations sound like: “You seem pretty (furious/depressed/sad/confused). I’m so glad you’re going such a good job of grieving!” (This makes a pretty good inner affirmation for ourselves, too!)

Note that grief may be sabotaged by unconscious fears of feeling and expressing anger and sadness. If a well-meaning stepfamily adult says, “Sandy, it’s good to grieve,” but does not honestly show their own rage and tears, kids get a confusing double message. What have your kids seen you do with your major losses? What did your key caregivers do?

2. Confidence in Surviving Grief: This mourning resource is hard to assess well because it is partly unconscious. If such faith is not felt, the imagined, or real, emotions from major losses can feel literally paralyzing or fatal (“If I cry, I’ll never stop—I’ll drown!” or “If I let myself get angry, I’ll kill someone!”). Chronic depression can grow if grief feelings are seen as “endless.”

Confidence that the sadness will end, as a predictable part of the natural human mourning cycle, can help endure or manage grief’s rage and despair. Key people around a griever who lack such confidence in the healing process can be a powerful external block to good grief. For typical stepfamily adults, getting clear on the differences and similarities of chronic depression and the temporary sadness phase of normal mourning is really useful.

3. Commitment to Doing Good Grieving: Even clear awareness of their losses, and great faith in the grief process, will not help grievers who do not care much about their own welfare. Once the mourning cycle and healthy-grief factors are known, we each have a conscious choice to avoid or resolve inner and outer grief-blocks! If we have such blocks and choose to not pay attention to them, good grief’s healing will come more slowly or not at all.

Adults seriously abused and deprived of respect as children are prime candidates for this self-neglect. They are also likely to be un-empathic and discouraging to other mourners, unless they are codependent or professional helpers (e.g., counselors, educators, lawyers, clergy, and medical healers). Such wounded professionals risk being over-concerned and so, cannot be of value as they loose their objectivity.

Often, good grief is partly instinctive and partly a conscious choice. Conscious mourning is work, e.g., going to retreats, cemeteries, grief workshops, or therapy; reading relevant books; meditating; journaling, confronting and cleaning out painful mementos; saying real or symbolic good-byes, and choosing to be fully in painful and scary feelings at the moment.

Mourners decide consciously how to use their free times. They can allot time to reflect, feel, and realize, or can medicate themselves for the pain of loss with activities, substances, or stimulation. In the long run, healing losses is easier if you give your grief-work, and that of close others, high priority. Currently, our speed-and-stimulation based American society usually does not. Did your birth family prize good grief? Do you now?

How you use your free times is a good indicator of your grief priorities. Like other addicts, hustle-aholics are often frantically trying to dodge recognizing and feeling their rage and deep sadness from major losses. So are people with “mind-churn,” whose thoughts are rarely quiet.

4. Inner and Outer Grieving Permissions. One of the most potent pairs of things that can block normal mourning in adults and kids is a lack of inner and/or outer support for the healing process to proceed. What are these “permissions” like? How can you tell if they are there or not?

Building inner “permission” to grieve. A key factor in healing from loss is having inner support to grieve well. Our attitudes about feeling and expressing strong emotions either help or stop us. We learn these attitudes early, mostly from family adults, teachers, heroes, and the local culture we grew up in. Often we are not aware of our own values (should’s and ought’s) about mourning, because we have seldom thoughtfully considered and discussed them as kids or adults. They silently shape our loss reactions via feelings and inner “voices” (thought streams). Basically, these inner permissions sum up as either of these beliefs:

“It is okay and good for me to: (1) fully feel and openly express shock, confusion, anger, depression, and sadness; and to (2) find clear, believable answers to my questions of loss, over time, without guilt or anxiety”; or ...

“It is not safe or acceptable for me to do one or both of these things.”

Between these two extremes are many variations; e.g., “It is okay for me to get angry, but not okay to cry,” or vice-versa; or “It’s okay to cry, but only (alone/at night/in the car/...)”; or “Grieving is women’s work”; or “It’s proper to feel these things, but I selfishly burden others if I show them.”

Our ancestors’ values about grieving probably get passed on to us more by observing our parents react to loss, rather than by listening to them talk about it. As a child, what did you see your key caregivers (parents, key relatives, teachers, clergy) do about mourning their losses? What scripts or “permissions” about feeling and sharing strong emotions did you inherit from your ancestors? Did those adults who parented and taught you as a child promote healthy grieving? How do you judge that?

An important awareness about our inner permissions is: even if we were taught grieving inhibitions as kids, we can identify and intentionally relearn them as adults and replace them with more healthy beliefs and thought streams. We can also intentionally teach the younger people in our lives to have their own clear (versus ambivalent) inner support for healthy mourning. Doing so is a major gift!

Outer permissions to mourn. If the key people around a griever encourage and support healthy grief, they give “outer permission” for it. There are many ways we can grant—or block—such permission. To encourage and support a dear one grieving is a real challenge, especially if we are in our own pain! Are you generally such a person? Would your child(ren) say so? Your partner? Have you ever been consistently comforted by such a supporter? Remember what it felt like, over time. That is experiencing full outer permission to mourn well.

People who lack support characteristics often unintentionally hinder a griever’s healthy mourning. They may be secretly fearful, shamed, needy, and ignorant. They usually will deny this to themselves and others, to avoid the pain of awareness. Their inability to feel, endure, and express intense feelings, and to comfort others experiencing the same, must be well guarded, especially if they are burdened with perfectionism. They are wounded, not “bad, people. Most come from a childhood of great emotional deprivation, fear, confusion, loneliness, and pain.

Such “blockers” can be blunt or subtle about withholding permission to mourn. Some are very clear: “Oh, stop being such a wimp!” “What’s the big deal?” “Aren’t you over moping yet?” “Come on—get on with your life!” “Isn’t Jean great? Nothing gets her down!” “C’mon, cheer up—it could be a lot worse. Look at George’s situation ...”

At other times, their discouragement comes via a glance, a silence, a turn of the head, an overdue phone call, or a reproving or sarcastic tone of voice. Some dependent people will block another’s grief because they may unconsciously fear the griever will “collapse,” i.e., will not be there to lean on. Some people with only vaguepersonal boundaries deeply feel others’ intense emotions. They dread feeling overwhelmed themselves if they let close grievers mourn fully.

Kids of divorced parents can unconsciously interfere with a parent’s mourning, to save their dream of parental reunion or to protect the parent from feared “collapse.” Stressed and guilty-feeling single parents may covertly discourage a child’s grieving, fearing it to be a “last straw.” An elderly or infirm parent can fear loss of support because of “probable” emotional collapse of their newly-divorced or widowed adult child. They can hinder their child’s grief by increasing their calls for attention.All such blockers lack solid confidence in their own, and/or their griever’s, ability to survive grief’s intensities.

Kids learn how to mourn from personal heroes or heroines among their family, friends, house of worship, school, community, nation, and race. TV, sports, music, and fantasy heroes can powerfully model or inhibit good grief for kids and teens. Do the Chicago Bears, Ninja Turtles, Barbie, GI Joe, Batman, Madonna, Santa Claus, Captain Kirk, Led Zeppelin, Jesus, or the Masters of the Universe have losses? Obsess and cry? Rage? Get deeply sad and depressed? Seek counseling? What grieving permissions have your heroes or heroines given you? Your partner(s)? Your kids? Your parents and siblings?

Inherited cultural values are important here, too. Some British, Scandinavian, Asian, Native American, African, and Central European cultures prize stoicism, at least among males. Other Mediterranean, Latin, Arabic, and Indian groups expect males to feel and vent passions intensely and spontaneously. Some “permit” showing anger, but not weeping. Some the reverse.

Can you think of cultures that discourage females from healthy mourning, or encourage them to amplify and hang on to it? What culture(s) do you identify with? Do you know what ethnic traditions are shaping your, and your kids’, reactions to loss? Can you discuss this together?

Getting consistent outer grieving support can be especially complex for stepfamily grievers. There are more key people and three or more sets of ancestral and cultural customs about feeling and expressing rage and anguish. These sets can clash, sometimes starkly. One family’s tradition may be “boys grieve alone and real men don’t grieve,” while the new partner’s ancestors taught, “males who cry and mourn openly are strong and healthy.” Simply living with new people can impede natural grieving because full trust in their acceptance and support hasn’t formed yet.

Paradoxically, close friends may not be the most helpful companions along our mourning path. If they have a high stake in the griever’s quick recovery, do not understand the grief process, and/or carry strong biases about divorce, death, and remarriage losses, they can unintentionally hinder the five emotional steps. Some clergy can accidentally discount grief feelings by urging exclusive focus on God’s blessings. Grief support groups (like “Compassionate Friends,” “Rainbows,” and “Kaleidoscope”), (some) divorce recovery groups, and qualified therapists can provide more objective and effective support.

If you or a loved one have “okay to grieve” inner permission, and get “not okay” outer messages from key other people (or vice-versa), confusion and stress can be high, especially without a clear awareness of this conflict. Do you know anyone with this kind of stress?

5. Solitude, and 6. Distraction-free Time. Good grief happens when we experience our feelings fully and repeatedly, and gradually let them go. Being mentally and physically busy all the time really hinders such experiences. The painful, and healing, alternative is to give yourself or another mourner quiet times to meditate and be open to feeling and expressing the emotions that need to surface—especially rage, despair, and sadness.

At such times, mourners need to be free of mind- and emotion-distorting chemicals like alcohol, nicotine, excessive food (e.g., sugar), caffeine, and some prescription drugs like tranquilizers and sleep medications. It also helps to minimize distractions like TV, phones, physical discomforts, other people moving or talking, thinking about other problems, and the like.

For many of us, being in nature or in a personally sacred, peaceful place at such times greatly helps to get clear and quiet. Soothing music, and journalizing, can help do this.

Focusing and meditating on what we have lost, what our loss(es) mean to us, and how we feel, is hard and healing. Mourning some major losses fullycan take months or years. Patience, faith, and repeated calm, clear, focused times nurture the natural five-step emotional, and related mental, clarity processes. Having an attentive supporter nearby during such times often, but not always, helps.

Together, these factors promote natural healing of the invisible wounds from life’s endings, over time. What if a grown or young griever does not have enough of these factors?

Symptoms of Blocked Grieving

Lacking some of these good-grief resources consistently, people can either not start their mourning process, or can get stuck in one of the five emotional phases. Use the following list to check for frozen grief in yourself or one you care about. Look for repeated patterns over time:

Seeming “forever” sad, angry, or depressed, or often feeling numb or “nothing,” either in general, or about the loss. People who always seem very intellectual or “unemotional” may be frozen in grief.

Repressed anger. Signs include repeated: procrastination; lateness; sadistic or sarcastic humor; cynicism; sighing; inappropriate cheerfulness; over-controlled monotone voice; insomnia or excessive sleep, waking up tired, tiring easily, or inappropriate drowsiness; irritability; clenched jaws (“TMJ”) or teeth grinding (particularly at night); back pain; muscle spasms, tics, or twitches; and, fist clenching, or other automatic actions. Some of these may have medical causes, though our mind-body connection is a relevant mystery here (i.e., which causes what?).

Minimizations or denials. Consistently down-playing either the loss itself (“ ___ wasn’t that important to me”), or feelings about the loss (“No, I’m not sad—just tired again, is all.”). The ultimate denial is one’s own denial.

Chronic weariness, depression, or apathy. It takes a lot of personal energy to steadily repress frightening emotions and awarenesses. In his book Healing the Shame That Binds You,” John Bradshaw likens this to trying to live while holding a big beach ball under water. Therapist Virginia Satir suggested it is like constantly holding a door closed against a basement full of starving dogs.

Addictions to activities (e.g., work, hobbies or sports, worship, committees, socializing, TV, personal computers, fitness and health, sex, cleaning, shopping, gambling, reading, or endless education); substances (nicotine, caffeine, food or sugar, alcohol or other hard drugs, or medications); or “toxic” relationships (those consistently producing shame, fear, rage, pain, guilt, anxiety, stress, and/or unhealthy dependence).

Often, people using addictions or obsessions to put off grief pain have several of the above (“cross addiction”).All will deny, minimize, or rationalize their compulsive dependencies, until real (versus intellectual) personal recovery begins. Usually, their partners or relatives, who may be addicted to their addict’s feelings and welfare (“codependence”), will join them in such denial (“enabling”). Others may acknowledge their partner’s addiction while fiercely denying their own.

Repeated avoidances. These can be verbal, mental, and/or physical. If the loss (or something associated or similar) comes under discussion, a blocked mourner will often become silent or irritable, tune out, try to change the subject, or leave. They may reflexively shun certain places (like former dwellings, neighborhoods, houses of worship, cemeteries, etc.); people; activities or rituals (holidays, vacations, births, death, graduations, etc.); or painful mementos (photo albums, movies, music, old letters, holiday ornaments, special clothing, etc.) that remind them of that which is gone.

Blocked mourners will often protectively deny or minimize such avoidances. Single-parent and blended families abound with such painful reminders. Are there any in your life? Your kids’ lives?

(Some) chronic pain or illness, especially without clear biological cause. A growing number of professional healers feel that recurrent asthma, migraine or other headaches, digestive or colon problems, back pain, shoulder pain and neck stiffness or soreness, breathing or swallowing troubles, panic attacks, nightmares, allergies, and the like are body signals that emotions are being unhealthily repressed. Fearful mourners will often scoff at this.

Obesity and eating disorders.It’s been said of some obese people that “every fat cell is an unshed tear.” Adults or kids can numb the pain of unresolved loss by compulsive overeating. Others are metabolically unbalanced. Grief-work can be far more helpful than endless dieting/regaining cycles, which typically build guilt, shame, and eventual depression and hopelessness. Other eating problems, anorexia (self-starvation) or bulimia (compulsive binge-purge cycles), may signal blocked mourning and deep shame.

Obesity can be a symptom of childhood sexual abuse. This indescribably painful personal violation forces the massive losses of innocence, trust, security, and self-respect in children too young and dependent to understand and protect themselves.

Anniversary depressions. Major apathy, sadness, sluggishness, sickness, sleep disorders, irritability, or feeling gloomy “for no reason” may recur annually at the time or season a major loss happened. This can appear to be (or be increased by) Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Enshrining or purging mementos. People who obsessively display, revere, discuss, or protect special real or abstract reminders long after a big loss can be blocked mourners. Such mementos can include foods, music, clothes, pictures, furniture, letters, jewelry, perfume, gardens, and many more. Revering or reacting to such reminders to perpetual excess is the key here.

The opposite may also signal incomplete grief; people who compulsively throw away every reminder of the lost person or thing can be avoiding the intolerably painful hole in their life.

Often having extreme reactions to the losses or traumas of strangers, acquaintances, animals, or fictional characters seen on TV, etc.. Such reactions include uncontrollable sobbing, lasting depression, intense rages, insomnia, obsessions, and over-identifications (“becoming” the hurt one).

Stuck mourners may have one or more of these symptoms and hide or disguise them out of shame, guilt, and anxiety. This is especially true when the key people around them disapprove. Having one or several of the symptoms does not prove a person is blocking major grief; it does justify honestly exploring the possibility.

Adult and child mourners who are not stuck are grieving well. How do they do it?

Steps to GOOD Stepfamily Grief

1. Accept that you are a stepfamily (versus “Just a ‘regular’ family”), and therefore that all your members have major prior and recent losses to mourn.

You all are a stepfamily and your remarriage follows, and causes, major losses for all your multi-home stepfamily members. Your losses are both tangible and invisible. Accept that all your divorced stepfamily adults and their kin are full members of your stepfamily, and will be for years. Your step-kid(s) believe this, whether you do or not. These other adults are deeply linked to you biologically, legally, financially, historically, and emotionally.

Accept that grieving is a legitimate and vital life task for all members of your stepfamily. Believe that incomplete grief in one or several of your stepfamily members can cause severe re-marital and parenting stresses and serious personal problems An adult’s resistance to consider or accept these step realities is a clear sign of incomplete grief.

Talk together openly and often about your key or collective losses and your mourning process. Accept that all your active stepfamily adults, including living bio-parental ex-mates, are responsible for promoting healthy grieving in themselves and all dependent related kids. Grown kids can need family help, too.

Also, decide if each stepparent is responsible for promoting good grief in each stepchild. If not, who should? If so, how should the stepparent(s) do this well?

2. All three to four (or more) stepfamily adults clarify and compare their definitions of “good grief.” Build a shared definition you all believe in and can use together.

This shared clarity among all active stepfamily adults promotes cooperative decisions on whether your stepfamily members are mourning well or not. Once stepfamily adults have their individual definitions clear, forge a shared definition all can use. Include the kids in this process, so they know what you are doing and why. They probably have a lot of natural wisdom to contribute! This definition is the core of your stepfamily’s grief policy.

An alternative to this step is to have vague and/or conflicting stepfamily adult definitions of good grief. Because our culture devalues mourning, a common unhealthy definition sounds like this: “Good grief is not whining or blubbering over stuff that can’t be changed. We should all get on with our lives and not wallow in the past!”

Sound familiar? Yes or no, know that you do now have a personal definition of good grief and that your actions following major life losses need to be based on it. Reading this chapter will probably make you more aware of your real (unconscious) mourning “rules.”

3. Identify your current personal, household, and multi-home stepfamily “policies” about mourning. Update them if they do not promote good grief.

A grief policy is a set of personal or group beliefs about handling life losses, and related reactions and behaviors. Every person and family has grief policies (should’s and ought’s), although often they are not aware of them. The task here is to learn yours and update them if they do not promote good mourning in keeping with your shared definition.

An effective grieving policy will give clear guidelines on some key questions for your members:

· Specifically: “How does our family now define ‘personal loss,’ ‘healthy grief,’ and ‘effective mourning support’?

 · “In this home, what are our specific beliefs (‘should’s and ought’s’) about identifying and talking about our major personal losses; feeling strong emotions like rage, deep sadness, and despair; expressing them; and hearing these well?”

 · “In our home and stepfamily, how long can grief take? Can members mourn differently and still be accepted?”

· “Who’s responsible for ensuring that each of our members is encouraged to know their losses and to grieve well in (1) this home, and (2) our multi-home stepfamily?”

· “Who among us is responsible for teaching and coaching us on how to support a mourner well? Is everyone on their own? Should (or do) we have a family ‘grieving specialist’ or coordinator? If so, who? What’s their job? How did they get it? Are they doing it ‘well enough’? Do they feel appreciated enough?”

· “What key projects are generally more important to our home and stepfamily members than healthy mourning, and which aren’t? What priority do we normally give healthy mourning?”

· “Is it okay to ask for grieving help in our home? In our stepfamily? Generally, how should we support each other in recovering from personal losses? How do we pick ‘safe’ grief supporters and what should we ask for and expect from them? Do we ‘owe’ them anything? If so, what?

· “When should we get aid in grieving, for whom, and from whom? Who should make this happen in our home? In our stepfamily? Who should monitor such help to see if it’s effective? Who should pay for the help? How and when? Within what limits?”

· “Who’s responsible for making this grieving policy? Giving feedback on it? Resolving conflicts about it? Amending it? Putting it into practice? Appreciating good grievers among us?

All members of your multi-home stepfamily probably have unconscious answers to these questions now. These answers form your current personal, home, and family grief policies. If you have not discussed them together, it is likely they are at least partly unconscious, conflicting among some of you, uncoordinated, and under-enforced in your home and family. If true, that is fertile ground for incomplete grief and high personal, couple, and family stress. Once everyone is clear on an effective home and stepfamily mourning policy, then:

4. Take detailed inventories of the invisible and tangible losses that each member of your stepfamily (including multiple households) has had.

Identify specifically what tangible and intangible things you have lost. Then do the same with or for your present partner, any important young people in your life, and all other stepfamily adults. Trusted companions or professionals may help in verifying loss-related “holes,” in case anyone is in denial to avoid pain.

Consider endings stemming from both divorce or death, and remarriage or cohabiting. If your list is long, try grouping losses as high, medium, and low-impact. Doing this in a positive way as a household or whole (multi-generation) family can create real stepfamily closeness. It can grow empathic awareness of each member’s “holes” and pain, and promote healing outer permissions.

Once your losses are named, reflect on and talk about their meaning to you with safe people. Discuss each of the questions in the previous project. Such talk can sound like “Because of my divorce, I feel like I’ve lost some of my main ‘roots’—I feel less secure emotionally, financially, and socially. I feel confused, too, about who I am—my identity is less clear to me now.” Invite kids to talk about the meanings of their losses often and affirm them—without moralizing, correcting, thinking for, or trying to “fix” them. Show rather than tell them how to talk about their losses.

The language of healthy mourning is full of “I”s and feelings words. It is full or energy and passion, too. “I sure miss ...” “I keep thinking about ...” “I remember ...” “I’m really sad that ...” “I hurt (versus ‘it hurts’) when ...” “I’m really angry that ....”

People who are ashamed or feel guilty or scared to mourn honestly (i.e., lack inner permissions) often use “you” and “we,” instead of “I.” Do you know anyone who does this? What has the grieving language in your home sounded like recently? In many step-homes, it is the sound of silence.

Now you have acknowledged you all have important losses from divorce or death, and remarriage (or co-habiting). You have evolved clear definitions of good grief and a viable family mourning policy. You have identified your main tangible and invisiblelosses, and have begun to talk openly about their real impacts. The good-grief co-leaders in your home and stepfamily are now ready to:

5. Check each family member for signs of significant incomplete grief. If you find any, stepfamily adults decide together on how to unblock—and act! If unsure or scared, get qualified professional help. (Some counselors specialize in grief work.)

If you think someone is significantly blocked, look for missing healthy-grieving factors.

Does the blocked griever understand the grief process? (I.e., can they describe the five emotional steps and the chaos-to-clarity mental steps?) Can they name their key losses? If not, explain why that helps and encourage them to learn these at their own pace.

Does the stuck person believe the hurt will go down and their mourning process will end? How can our family help them to realize they are moving naturally through the stages of grief, or can do so? What would grow their trust that there is a better life for them after mourning? Recall that natural mourning cannot be rushed.

If this person feels no confidence in (or resists) the grieving process, maybe they are just not ready to say good-bye. How can your family support them until they are ready, without being over-stressed while waiting? If their resistance is self-harmful, get professional help. Seek counselors who have specific training and experience in facilitating healthy grieving. Beware of becoming obsessed with helping your stuck one. Ultimately, it is their decision if and when to say good-bye. What you can do is provide the best outer permission (support) you can—then let go!

Is your mourner committed to mourning well? Good grief is a conscious choice. It may be that a stuck mourner has awarenesses and confidence, but puts most other life priorities ahead of self-healing. This often stems from deep shame, self-neglect and self-abandonment. These are typical core issues for survivors of childhood trauma. They are often denied, even when obvious to others. Acknowledging and working to heal these issues are essential personal, step-couple, and stepfamily adult tasks! Choosing to avoid these issues risks passing them on to future generations.

One indicator of a mourner’s commitment to good grief is their freely choosing times to be alone and quiet—even if others discourage this. Removing inner and outer distractions helps reflect on grief questions and fully experiencing the feelings tied to the answers that eventually appear.

Help your mourner to review their inner permissions about grieving. If their “should’s and ought’s” are vague, work to clarify them. An option: without judgment, describe in detail how the mourner typically behaves when they are (1) angry (or have reason to be), (2) deeply sad, and (3) deprived of something they prize. Their actions indicate their true inner rules about feeling and showing strong emotions following important endings.

Another option: ask the person some specific questions: “(When/how) should (men/boys/women/girls) feel and express (1) anger or rage, and (2) sadness or despair?” “If you feel and show these emotions, will you or someone else get hurt?” “How” “Why” “How do you know.” Write down exactly what their inner voices say, without judgment. Several conflicting inner opinions are okay—at first.

Once the inner rules are identified, decide if they clearly fit your stepfamily’s definition of good grief. If not, learn what, if anything, is in the way of adopting healthier personal values. If this is confusing, or if family members have high resistance to these steps or improving their inner grieving permissions, get qualified professional help.

Check their outer grieving permissions and the quality and availability of their mourning support. See if anyone important to them is now openly or covertly discouraging them from naming their losses, or from feeling or expressing their anger and sadness in their own way and at their own pace.

If there is someone, expect them to deny that they are interfering or to rationalize that “it’s really best because ...” Respect their resistance, but do not accept it. They truly mean no harm, yet discouraging grief in a loved one is harmful, just as chronic constipation is. It blocks a mourner’s natural way of relieving their distress. If prolonged, it can make them emotionally, relationally, and/or physically sick.

If a grief-blocker cannot accept what they are doing and change, the mourner can choose to reduce—or end—contact with them, to be with people who give positive grief permission and support. Chronically unhappy and codependent people can help themselves by limiting, or ending, relationships that impede healthy grief. If the blocker is a parent, spouse, old friend, religion, or employer, such decisions are scary—and ultimately healing. Mourners with low self-respect, and/or high fear of abandonment, often lack inner permission to do this.

Also, grievers may often fear that their “endless” sadness, depression, or rage will burden or annoy supporters. To avoid this, invite supporters to say honestly—without guilt—if they cannot listen to or be with you at certain times. Ask them to be responsible for their own limits, so that the mourner does not have to be. Consider that letting genuinely concerned others share your anguish is a gift, for it gives them a real way to help. How do you feel—and act—when a dear one shares their rage or sadness with you? Can you tell them without guilt if and when you have had enough for the time being?

Help your mourner be clear on when they currently want empathic companionship and acceptance, or solitude, rather than wanting advice or to do “problem solving.” Because well-meaning supporters may offer the latter at the wrong time, mourners need inner permission—and maybe outer encouragement—to say, “Thanks, but that’s not helpful, now. Just hear me and be with me, please,” or “I need time alone right now to sort things out.

Grief supporters need guidance at times on what their mourners need at the moment. A grief policy option is that “it’s okay for our supporters to ask, and it’s okay for our grievers to tell them, even if not asked!”

Consider co-designing a ceremony or ritual to help the stuck person say “good-bye.” Examples are: a special farewell meal, service, or meeting; creating a poem, story, song, prayer, sculpture, collage, or other final tribute; planting, burying, or burning something; making imaginary or real calls, orwriting in detail about those things that will never be again, and sharing them with a trusted friend; reverently letting go of a symbolic object; making a last or special visit to a place tied to the loss; etc. Designing and doing a grief ceremony as a couple or a whole stepfamily can grow bonding and closeness for all.


(With editing, this can also become a personal grieving policy.)

Everyone in our multi-home stepfamily has experienced big losses from divorce (or the death of a spouse) and blending our several biological families. Losses hurt. Grieving is Nature’s way of healing our hurts and sadness over time, so we each can let new people, ideas, and activities into our lives, and move on. This policy says clearly how we want our family members to mourn their losses. It defines good (unblocked) grief and guides us on how to lovingly help each other do it in a healthy way.

The natural process of good grief involves shock, pleading (maybe), rage, sadness, and eventual acceptance (but not forgetting). It also involves getting unconfused and clear, over time, on some normal questions about our losses and their meaning. Mourning is a normal, healthy reaction when females and males of any age attach to, and later lose, precious things. Some big losses take people years to mourn fully. We know, too, that adults and kids can get stuck in the grieving process if they don’t feel safe enough to grieve.

The stepfamily adults in each of our stepfamily homes are in charge of (1) grieving their own losses well, and (2) respectfully helping our younger people (and others) to do the same.

In our special stepfamily, we strongly believe it is GOOD to:

ACCEPT that emotional attachments and losses are a normal part of every life, and that the people and things we lose will never come again in the same special way.

GET CLEAR on specifically what we each lost, why we lost it, why we miss it, and how we really feel about losing it. Losing special people (relationships), dreams, things, pets, customs, health, freedoms, places, securities, roles, identity, privacy, and opportunities all can hurt—a lot!

TALK OPENLY about important things that are gone for good—over and over, if we need to—until the hurt stays down. The other half of talking is listening with our hearts—without judgment—to ourselves and each other. That really helps!

USE MOURNING LANGUAGE. It sounds like: “I hurt!” “I’m really sad!” “I’m so mad that ...” “I miss _____ so much!” “If only ...” “I remember ...” “I’m not ready.” “I wish ...” “I feel ...” “I’ve lost ...” And sometimes, “Good-bye, __________.”

CRY, alone and with each other, when we need to. This is true for each of our boys, girls, women, and men. People who feel their anger and pain, and cry it out, are strong and healthy. It can hurt our health to block crying!

FEEL ANGRY about our losses and show it—as long as we don’t hurt ourselves, others, Life, the Earth, or important things.

FORGIVE any person who caused us to lose someone or something dear—when we’re ready. This is not a “should.” We’re not doing this only for the other one(s): forgiving is a good way to set ourselves and others free from old anger, resentment, guilt, and stress.

REMEMBER the people and things we’ve lost, in our own ways, with deep love and appreciation. As normal grief ends, sorrow may stay.

ASK FOR HELP from each other when we need a hug or an ear, to be held or comforted, or some information about our losses or other people’s related feelings or beliefs.

PRAY for help or understanding or patience or strength or guidance—alone and together.

INVITE people in and outside our family to tell us honestly if they feel burdened by us, or if they can’t listen to or support us at the moment. It’s okay to not help a griever when someone feels really distracted or overloaded at the time!

SAY—and mean—“I did” and “I’m sorry” when any of us causes a painful loss to another. ACTto help ourselves and other family members move through our mourning. Each of us can decide for ourselves what things and memories to keep, which to let go of, and when to do so. We can’t decide these for someone else.

KNOW that we can’t “fix” or heal another person’s hurt or fill the holes in their life that losses make. We can love, support, and be with them, as they fill these holes themselves.

WRITE in a special diary or make a scrapbook about what we lost, what we miss, how we feel, and anything else we need to do. If anyone does this, they can keep their writing private without guilt or shame, or show it to people they trust.

BE ALONE with our thoughts and feelings—as long as we don’t overdo it. It also really helps our grief progress when we talk to trusted others about our losses and our feelings.

BE UNIQUE: No one has to mourn like anybody else: we each find our own way of saying good-bye and letting go, when we’re ready.

AFFIRM and encourage anyone who is grieving, if we choose to (we don’t have to). Affirming can sound like: “I feel really good that you’re able to feel ________/talk about _____ /cry about _____ / _____. Good job !”

EXPERIMENT AND CHANGE how we mourn, over time. There’s no “perfect” way!

LEARN from our losses to really appreciate and enjoy the special people and things in our lives while we have them.

ENJOY LIFE as best we can and care well for ourselves, both while we mourn and after the hurt and anger soften.

GET PROFESSIONAL HELP, if anyone gets really stuck in moving through their grief. The adults in each of our houses are responsible for deciding if this should happen, and doing it.

SUPPORT EACH OTHER. When any one of us has an important loss, the others will try in their own way to:

· Understand and believe in our good grief process.

· Ask our griever what they need from us, if we’re not sure.

· Be empathic, comforting, and available enough.

· Really listen from our hearts, often—without trying to ‘fix” the griever.

· Offer patient, warm acceptance and encouragement, without rushing their process.

· Honestly say when we’ve heard enough or need to attend to our own affairs.

· Be as steady, realistic, and optimistic as we can.

· Be at ease with strong feelings in us and our mourner.

· Avoid yanking our griever out of his or her feelings by asking too many questions.

· Hold and hug our griever when needed, and respect his or her wish to avoid these at other times.

· Work towards knowing how and when to smile, laugh, and share comfortable eye contact.

· Be comfortable with shared silences.

· Hold no secret bad feelings (like resentment) about giving of our time and selves.

· When it seems okay, gently remind our mourner of the new choices that always appear from their losses.

· Make our home a safe place for our family members and others to grieve well; and,

· Care for and love ourselves just as we do for our mourner.

Know and take comfort in the fact that confidant stepfamily adult teams (not simply couples), can provide the warmth, comfort, inspiration, support, security—and often (not always) the love—that adults and kids long for.

Excerpted from THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS by Gloria Lintermans.

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