How To Adjust When Your Family Changes

May 1, 2018

On a recent Instagram live, a reader shared she was having trouble adjusting to the idea to her dad starting to date again.  You see, her mom had passed away about a year and a half ago, and though she was accepting (as much as one can be) of her mom’s death because it ended […]

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On a recent Instagram live, a reader shared she was having trouble adjusting to the idea to her dad starting to date again.  You see, her mom had passed away about a year and a half ago, and though she was accepting (as much as one can be) of her mom’s death because it ended her suffering after a 7 year battle with cancer, it had been an emotional 18 months.  Her question to me was, “how do I adjust to the idea of my dad dating and possibly adding someone new to our family?”

I think this is something a lot of people can relate to and grief is such a tricky thing; it is so full of every emotion. Any time a family changes, for any reason (be it death, divorce, remarriage, or even birth/adoption/foster care), there are so many emotions.  At times like these, it is natural to feel unsure what to do with all of them…some feelings may take you by surprise.  Last week was a particularly rough one for our family, as my husband and I began to realize that our boys are already struggling with the idea of adding someone new to the family via foster care.  As I sat down to write this post, it dawned on me…everything I shared with my dear reader on the Instagram Live is also advice I need to be implementing with my boys at this time of our own family’s changing.  With that in mind, I hope this can be of use to many of you who may be coping with all sorts of family changes for all sorts of reasons.

Adjusting To Family Changes Is Messy

Some of you might be familiar with the five stages of grief –  the work of Elizabeth Kubler Ross – but one of the first things I learned when I worked at a bereavement center during grad school is that you don’t go through the five stages of grief in order – while you may at some point experience all the stages of grief, loss and change are not a neat little package.  On the contrary, it is typical for one’s feelings to be all over the place at any given time.   So it is absolutely normal, first and foremost, to feel that way, and you should know, for that matter, that whatever you’re feeling is ok.  Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling because in grief, loss, and change there is no right or wrong.  

A lot of times when I work with grief clients I’ll hear people say “I feel like I should be feeling differently about this…” or “I feel like I should be moving on by now…”  or “I feel like I shouldn’t still be so sad.”  And those are the times when I just look at people and say, “No, there’s no should in grief.”  Actually, I pretty much say that for any client that is stuck on “should” because it just connotes guilt and shame…truly, nothing good comes from it. Friends, it’s times like these when you must give priority to being gentle with yourselves.  

Feeling Conflicted Is Normal…And Totally OK

If you’re feeling conflicted all of the sudden now that dad (or mom) is thinking about dating again, that’s ok. Even if you truly want your parent to find happiness with someone else, there will still inevitably be conflicting feelings as that process begins. Because of the nature of grief and this new idea of an expanding family, I would absolutely say you need to process through what you’re feeling with someone.  One of the tricky things about grief, especially a shared loss in a family, is that you may find yourself questioning “who is my safe person in the family?” Or rather, “is there someone in the family I can talk to about this without risk of judgment or guilt?”
In some families, you may be able to talk directly to your parent who is considering dating/remarriage.  It all depends on your relationship with that parent.  Another option is to talk to a trusted friend, but even so, sometimes people aren’t sure of how even their best friend will respond when they say something like:  “I’m feeling conflicted about my dad getting back out in the dating world after my mom’s passing.”  Ideally, your friend would provide compassionate listening and support, but sometimes (especially in very comfortable friendships), a well-meaning friend can say something to the effect of:  “REALLY?  It’s been a year and a half, let the man live!”  Which, may have the unintended side effect of causing you to feel guilty…the exact thing we want to avoid, if possible.

Extra Support May Be Needed To Cope Well

Honestly, that’s why I really recommend speaking to a therapist.  With any type of grief/loss/change in a family, each member will be adjusting to a “new normal.” That’s one thing we say a lot in grief or bereavement counseling – everyone knows life will never be the same, so what will it look like to find your new normal? As  time passes, and you adjust, you’re going to discover it, and then you’re going to discover it again and again.  Any type of change in a family is dynamic, just as the people within it are,  and so through all the transitions that happen in life, it’s so beneficial to have somebody to talk to.  One of the best gifts I can offer my clients is a place to go and say anything at all; the rare experience of saying exactly what it is you’re feeling in a judgment-free zone.

Certainly, if you have a person in your life who can do that for you, absolutely talk to them – just do what you feel is good for you. Another helpful strategy is to give yourself time and space to journal everything you are thinking and feeling.  It’s amazing what can be processed on the pages of a trusty notebook.  Remember to  trust your gut…tune into that inner voice telling you what you really need to hear.  If you or a loved one is struggling through family changes or anything else, please don’t hesitate to email me.  I’m happy to be a resource and help whenever I can.  
Have a wonderful day, dear friends!

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