While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates. You must wait till it be digested, and then amusement will dissipate it.

– Samuel Johnson

It has been said that the nontraditional family of yesterday is the traditional family of today! These means that the nontraditional family is fast becoming the norm in today’s society. But that also means that society is not prepared to help nontraditional parents and children cope with that reality. In particular, society has few, if any, means to help nontraditonal families cope with grief and loss, out of which they are born.

Nontraditional families include single, divorced, step or blended, adoptive, foster parents, and grandparents raising grandchildren. They are quickly becoming the majority in today’s society. Whether society/people consider them defective or less than “ideal” they are a reality and need special information and support. Most of the parenting programs available to nontraditional parents forget this reality. Consequently, the parenting programs apply only to traditional, two-parent, biologically based parents. Part of the problem is that nontraditional families have unique needs not usually experienced by traditional parents. One example of this is grief.

Grief is the state that individuals experience when a significant loss occurs in their life. The loss might occur as a result of death, divorce, and/or abandonement by a familiy member. It might be said that nontraditional families are born out of grief as they are formed as a result of a loss. This is not to say the traditional families do not experience grief but that nontraditional families have this experience, to one degree or another, in common.

Grief has predictable stages of development. This is beneficial to the nontraditional parent as they attempt to make sense of their grief experience. Most importantly they know that it will not last forever, at least not in the same intensity as when it started. Perhaps the best know framework for grief and loss are the stages listed in the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote the book On Death and Dying (1969). Her stages of grief include:

Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

A useful metaphor for understanding grief are the waves of an ocean. When you are way out in the ocean, the waves are large and frightening. They pull you under and twist you about, creating a sense of hopelessness or fear of your future. This is similar to the stage of Denial or shock at the reality of the loss. When the waves pass and the ocean feels momentarily calm, this is called the stage of anger or bargaining. The shore represents the stage of acceptance. As nontraditional parents and children swim for the stage of acceptance, waves continue to crash over them, sometimes threatening to pull them under in denial and shock and at other times settling down and letting anger and bargaining propel them forward to the shore. The closer you come to the shore the less intense the waves. But even small waves, when standing on the edge of the ocean can unsettle and cause you to lose your balance.

Nontraditional parents can use this metaphor to help them balance love and limits with their children. Because they are in the ocean and not on the shore they cannot compare themselves to traditional parents. Rather than live up to society’s expectation of what an ideal family should look like, nontraditional parents need to concentrate their energy on swimming for the shore.

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