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Death in a Stepfamily

“Laura, Dad has had a stroke; the doctors don’t think he’s going to make it.” I instantly recognized the voice of my brother, Mark.

When I got the call I was in Tyler, Texas getting ready to stand on a platform before 750 women to share with them my favorite message, “Who’s Your Daddy?” I was enthused and ready to have a fun time.

That call changed everything.

How would I speak before this group, as I fought back my tears? My own father lay dying in Buffalo, New York, while I was in Dallas, Texas.

I had no idea what was about to happen would become another lesson in stepfamily living.

I remained at the event and with God’s help finished my speaking commitment. I flew into Buffalo on a grey and gloomy January morning. Mark picked me up from the airport, we went directly to ICU.

When I looked at the man standing outside my father’s room, his familiar hazel eyes were the first thing I noticed. It took me a few minutes to connect those eyes to the person. I realized it was my stepbrother, Mark (yes, it is confusing sometimes), whom I had not seen in over 20 years. My dad adopted him when he was married to my first stepmother. This Mark, the one I didn’t recognize, was her son from a previous marriage and legally became my father’s child after the adoption.

Dad and my first stepmom got divorced several years after the adoption. Over the years all of us became adults and went our separate ways. I had very little contact with my stepbrothers, or my half-brother, after my father’s second marriage dissolved.

Until this moment.

Suddenly, life, death, and the law propelled us into an unexpected and complex family reunion. We were required to make overwhelming life-and-death decisions with people we hadn’t seen in many years.

Before I arrived, the hospital staff was pressuring my stepbrother to pull the plug on Dad’s respirator. I shall always be eternally grateful to my stepbrother for the decision to keep dad alive until I could get there to say goodbye. Although he barely knew me, he gave me a gracious and life-changing gift.

The three of his by his side, I prayed over him before they disconnected the equipment.

The two men decided to go to the waiting room, while I stayed by my father’s side. As the machines slowly dropped their pace, I handed my earthly daddy over to my heavenly Daddy.

If my brothers and I thought the decision making was over, we were sorely mistaken. Although I asked my father many times to obtain a will he never did. The frenzy of decisions continued. Cremation, funeral homes, organ donations, etc. all had to be decided and paid for.

uncharted territory of death and dying.

Our newly reassembled stepfamily trudged through the uncharted territory of death and dying.

Immediate decisions needed to be made about things such as:

  • how long and expensive the obituaries should be

  • where to have a funeral (we each have different spiritual beliefs)

  • how to get the word to extended family

  • where to order the food for the luncheon (I’m Italian this is a non-negotiable ).

  • What pictures to display, and where were they

  • What would we do with his ashes

  • Who and when to clean out his apartment

  • What should be done with his possessions?

  • Who was going to pay for all of this

On and on it went. It was exhausting.

I was more emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually drained than I have ever been in my life. It took many months to recover.

My dad’s death would have been hard regardless. It was the ambush of emotions generated by stepfamily life that overwhelmed me.

I was totally astonished when I entered my father’s hospital room and my stepbrother called my father Dad, I almost cried out, “No! He’s, my daddy! Not yours” That stunning thought welled up from somewhere deeply hidden inside my childhood pain. I didn’t know it was still there until his words caused it to erupt in my soul.

Fortunately, I caught myself and didn’t speak. But my mind was whirling, “Laura, where did that come from. You have worked in stepfamily ministry for 25 years. What is going on?”

We erroneously believe that stepfamily issues are absent or dissolve when the children are adults. It’s a lie. I thought I’d be prepared for this moment.

I was wrong.

Don’t wait until your grandparent, stepparent, sibling, stepsibling, etc. is on a deathbed to discuss crucial issues.


Wise Stepfamily Steps:

  • Obtain an attorney. Prepare legal documents which plan and discuss all the details the family will encounter

  • Obtain a financial planner who specializes in stepfamilies. My husband and I have a trust and an estate plan which can ease the stress for our families when one or both of us dies.

  • Obtain a Power of Attorney (POA) a good lawyer will explain the benefits and the concerns, especially with the medical HIPPA laws that are currently implemented.

  • Obtain resources that divulge the most common issues stepfamilies face during dying and death. Do not minimize your spouse’s concerns. A stepparent often observes things that a parent cannot.

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