When a Biological Parent Dies
Death can take quite a toll on children and spouses. The death of a parent is one of the most stressful events one can experience, as is the death of a spouse. Similar to dealing with the illness of a biological parent, you might have to put any negative feelings you have for the other biological parent aside in order to best support your stepchild. Hopefully, everyone in the family will see that your relationship with your stepchild is necessary and any animosity they hold toward you can be set aside as well. Regardless of which parent passes away, you will probably take a central role in supporting your stepchild.
A study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that a child's perception of the surviving parent's level of openness in parental communication was found to be related to lower levels of depressive symptoms and anxiety in bereaved children. Encourage your partner or the other biological parent to speak openly with your stepchild and give her opportunities to talk and ask questions.
If your partner passes away, it is important that you not only find the support you need, but also that you make sure your stepchild receives support from family or professionals if necessary. In the event of a death following a long-term illness, you might have secured support ahead of time. If this is a sudden death, finding support in your family will come first; however, it is important that you find professional support as well as support from neighbors, friends, and family. Your primary care physician, your stepchild's pediatrician, school guidance counselors, school administrators, hospital social workers, and your local emergency room should all have services you can obtain quickly. Do not try and take all the stress and grief by yourself. Take help when offered, even if it is from the other biological parent with whom you do not always get along. This is a time when you need to take care of yourself in order to best take care of your stepchild.
Legally stepparents do not have automatic rights to their stepchildren. Therefore if your spouse were to die you may lose touch with your stepchildren unless the other biological parent chooses to keep in touch. This can be very traumatic for children who will essentially have lost their parent and stepparent all at one time. You may want to approach the other parent and suggest that you don't want to be intrusive but do want to be available to your stepchild.
If the other biological parent passes away, you should put the needs of your stepchild first. Your partner might be distraught and unable to tend to your stepchild as usual. Try to step in and take care of even the smallest items, such as picking up dry cleaning for the memorial ceremonies, ordering flowers, and informing school officials. Do not be consumed by your partner's sadness or let jealousy rear its ugly head — focus on the emotional needs of your partner and stepchild. If you notice your stepchild is quite distressed, suggest to your partner that professional help might be necessary. Your partner might feel too overwhelmed to look for services, so consider compiling a list of potential services that your partner can easily reference.
In the case of a death after a long-term illness, there will have been more opportunity to draw up appropriate legal documentation and make plans for your stepchild's care. Hopefully, this was done prior to the passing on of the biological parent. If not, you will need to seek legal advice relatively soon to avoid confusion or unsettled feelings on the part of your stepchild. In the event of the sudden death of either parent you might find added confusion, as there would not have been pressing reasons to plan for your stepchild's custody, living arrangements, schooling, etc. Since you never do know what the world holds, it is a great idea to write up specific plans and consult an attorney prior to any unforeseen illness or death. Taking precautions will only help everyone manage a sudden death or illness with more stability and less opportunity for disagreements.