The growing issue of death and 'blended families'
Each year, SunLife carries out research into the cost of dying in the UK. Along the way we hear touching accounts of loss and the impact of death on those left behind. This article describes one person’s unique experience of losing a parent. We'd like to thank the writer for sharing this very personal journey with us.
I didn’t hear the term 'blended family' until my dad was in a hospice.
That’s despite the fact that he'd married my stepmother 10 years previously, adding three step-siblings to the two half-sisters I already had from my mum's previous marriage.
In reality, my step-family and I weren’t much of a blend; we led quite separate lives.
A new type of family
When I was a child, second marriages were off my radar – even though my mum had been married before.
'Failed' or 'broken marriages' were talked about in the same hushed tones reserved for single parents. And while I loved to watch the Brady Bunch, I never thought of Mike and Carol's brood as a second family – let alone a 'blended' one…
Over the past decades however, second and even third marriages are commonplace. More of us than ever are living in blended families – and that means dying in them too.
This new reality raises a host of potential problems.
The staff at the hospice knew it. Looking back, I should have read their insightful and inclusive care as a flashing light on the family dashboard. But when you’ve already lost your mum and your dad is lying there in the final stages of cancer, the last thing you think about is your 'blended family' and how it will have a bearing on the way you negotiate their death, the funeral and its immediate aftermath - as well as life beyond.
Living separate lives
If you're already an adult when a parent remarries, you don’t become part of a shared family experience in quite the same way as a younger child. You don't go through the same mundane but binding experiences, the same highs, lows, laughs, gripes and moans.
My stepmother didn't pick up my dirty laundry, meet my first boyfriend, or see me open my exam results. In short, we didn't share the everyday intimacies that bring people together and as a result, our relationship remained mostly on a civil footing.
In truth, we had little in common, shared few of the same likes and dislikes, and had a vastly different way of doing things. But she and my dad adored each other and none of it mattered – until we found ourselves planning his funeral.
Sweating the small stuff
In many areas of life, it’s harder to agree on the small things than the big ones.
For example, if your dad's well known for having green credentials, it's highly unlikely he'll be buried in a fur-lined mahogany coffin with solid gold handles. His wishes will be clear, even if he hasn't stated them.
Instead, it's the little things that niggle you – and which hint at wider differences.
In my case, it was quiche and coronation chicken that threatened to tip me over the edge. I was convinced that my dad – a confirmed and adventurous foodie – would have hated to have them served at his wake. How could she think 'it's what he would have wanted'?
While I could have argued this out with my brother or given way to my own mum's wishes, things are much more complicated in a blended family where there are multiple claims on the driving seat. I can still remember the shock of discovering that my stepmother was the next of kin and by default outranked my brother and me – and on decisions far more important than the catering.
What a guy
Despite my own conflicted feelings, I know I'm fortunate.
My dad was a great planner and a generous provider. After receiving a terminal diagnosis, he said his goodbyes and organised his affairs with typical efficiency.
He didn't write my brother and I out of his Will and leave us to watch as his step-children blew their inheritance. And he was lucid enough to tell me I was welcome to stay by his side despite my step-mother's claims to the contrary, when she wanted him all to herself. Another frying pan in the face I didn't see coming…
So, my dad and I kept on talking as long as he could. About the big stuff and the small stuff – but we never discussed the sandwich fillings. And of course, it was never about the coronation chicken; it was about the fundamental difference in the way my stepmother and I regarded my dad. The connection he shared with me, his daughter, was completely and utterly different to the one he shared with his 'new' wife. He was the same man but different in every detail.
No wonder we didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Talking things through
Another thing that caught me out was my own feelings.
It's almost impossible to say to a dying parent, 'I’d like this or that when you die' even when they're asking you directly as my Dad often did. But saying nothing and then looking on as all those mundane but cherished items are given away, or worse still, become part of the fabric of another family, it's heart-breaking.
What was part of your history is now part of their future. My Dad would have said 'they're only things' and he'd be right (he always was). But to me, just at that moment, they felt like all I had of my parents and I wasn't ready to let them go.
The reality is, when two extended families come together after a death, you are united in grief but everything else may be at odds. And with one in three people in the UK now a step-parent, step-child, step-sibling or step-grandparent, we need to start thinking more about these issues – and talking about them too.
Who is the decision-maker on treatment and care? Who will be included in the Will? Who gets the final say when you can't all agree about funeral arrangements? And is the next of kin always where the power should lie?
For all those involved, there are divided loyalties that have to be negotiated and strong emotions that can only be weathered with patience and understanding.
As a result, these conversations can be difficult and painful for everyone, but the consequences of not having them can be far worse – and certainly a lot harder to swallow than coronation chicken.