Reading the Christmas story always reminds me of the blessings we experience because of God’s gift to us. But holiday seasons aren’t always merry for blended families. What if, alongside those blessings, there’s sadness this time of year? What if our not-so-blended relationships, outsider feelings as a stepparent, or ongoing tension in our home smother joy and leave us questioning when (or if) things will get better?
Particularly during the early years of stepfamily life, holidays have a way of resurrecting grief from divorce, death, or some other tragedy. Even if you’ve moved past that hard event, there’s a good chance your children haven’t. You might be excited about your first set of holidays together as a family, but your children or stepchildren want to return to Christmases when Mom and Dad were still together. They might not voice their grief aloud, but their behavior will speak instead.
If you or someone in your stepfamily is grieving this holiday season, don’t deny those feelings. Give yourself permission to be sad and take time for things that bring you joy. Recognize and acknowledge what your kids and stepkids are going through also. Don’t expect them to stuff their sadness or anger and carry out normal traditions as usual. Be prepared for heightened emotions and unpredictable behavior. And ask God for extra doses of grace for you and your family if grief looms this year.
Here are six reminders to get you through the season.
1. Even good things can bring heartache
After marrying in October, Randy and I plunged straight into the holiday months—oblivious as to what lay ahead with our four kids, two ex-spouses, and emotions on overdrive. I was thrilled at a second chance at matrimony after a failed marriage, but I wasn’t prepared for the heartache that accompanied the unfamiliar land I had stepped into.
I had fond memories as a child of picking out just the right tree with my family, decorating it with my three sisters, joy-filled laughter, and listening to the tunes of Christmas music playing in the background. That was the glorious beginning of a new holiday season.
But our tree-searching as a blended family wasn’t quite the same. We hustled to a nearby lot after work that first year with four kids in tow and a meager amount of cash. Each tree Randy pulled out for consideration was criticized and nitpicked by someone. The next lot carried the same scenario; agreeing on just the right tree seemed impossible.
Finally, we landed at the last lot in town with Randy’s frustration mounting. “We have to make a decision here, kids,” he said. “We’ve run out of choices.” The decision finally came through mounds of tears and bickering. The disharmony crushed my childhood memories. And sadly, the next year, Randy encouraged we skip that tradition and buy an artificial tree. Every year following, our new tradition became pulling the tree out of the attic to decorate. I grieved my unfulfilled expectation of what the beginning of the holiday season should look like.
2. Trust God
Despite what God had done for me previously, I complained of my current surroundings. My memory lapsed of how He walked with me through a dysfunctional marriage, a gloomy divorce, and hard single parenting years. He then provided a loving, gracious spouse for another chance at marriage.
But I acted like the Israelites in the desert who refused to trust God with their circumstances after God delivered them from Pharaoh. Caught between the advancing Egyptian army and the raging Red Sea, they cried out in fear to Moses. “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). They were so focused on their current hardship they forgot what God had done for them previously and didn’t trust His provision for the future.
How often we do the same. Even though God has walked with us through a muddled past, entering a hard season again as a stepfamily causes us to forget. We fail to trust He will provide for us again and instead create our own solutions that fail miserably.
God provided for the Israelites with the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. The Israelites crossed over unharmed with a wall of water on each side. Following close behind, the Egyptians drowned when the Lord swept them into the sea. God provided in ways the Israelites never anticipated, and He will do the same for us. Despite our doubts, His faithfulness never ceases.
3. Be vulnerable
We don’t like to show our sad self to others. Vulnerability takes courage. We have to open the curtain of our soul and allow others to see our wounds and our bruises. But if we leave the curtains closed, light can never filter in.
We find a beautiful example of a trusted friendship in Luke 1 with the Christmas story. After Mary learns she is pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, the angel Gabriel goes on to share another miraculous pregnancy—her relative Elizabeth. It must have been a perplexing time for Mary, but God immediately informs her of someone in a similar situation. Mary leaves to visit Elizabeth, traveling by donkey approximately eighty miles away—a long journey for a pregnant woman! We aren’t told why, but we can speculate that perhaps Mary knows Elizabeth will understand her unique situation. Mary stays with Elizabeth three months and a rich friendship follows.
We were created to be in relationship with one another. Find safe people you trust and share your story of unmet expectations, holiday struggles, or desperate attempts to trust God with circumstances you don’t like. We need the comfort a trusted friend can offer, but they have to know we’re struggling first.
4. Cherish the good days
Every holiday season includes good days and bad, high times and low. Embrace the good days and celebrate the season. But don’t fill your calendar with obligations you might not want to take part in on the hard days. If the Sunday school gathering creates angst for you this time of year, it’s okay to bow out. Or maybe the family portrait session needs to be canceled this year. Have you noticed that blended families and picture taking don’t seem to mix well?
Choose your favorite holiday festivity and make time to enjoy it. My parents were married 65 years before Mom passed away. Now, at 88 years old, Dad doesn’t have many days that include a pep in his step. But on his good days, he delights in spending time at a nearby lake watching the fishermen, feeding the ducks, and savoring a picnic lunch. Grief still shows up for him at the holidays, but he seeks to cherish the good days with activities that bring meaning to him.
Let your joy-filled days carry you through the sad ones this season. When you notice your stepchild having a good day, suggest a special activity or ask what they want to do to celebrate. Don’t let the good days slip by without intentional effort toward a festive activity, even if it’s as simple as making holiday cookies or singing a Christmas carol with those you love.
5. Let prayer change you
Steeped in stepfamily grief at the time, I stared at the plaque on my friend’s wall, considering whether I agreed with it or not. “Prayer changes things,” it said. I wanted to believe what I read, but my mind wandered to our circumstances—another holiday season marked by sadness from unmet expectations and relationships that weren’t blending.
That was 24 years ago, our second holiday together as a stepfamily. Wanting a different outcome than the year before, I committed to keep my focus on Jesus and rely on His help with my challenges. I started each day with prayer and a devotion and ended each day by writing something to be thankful for on my gratitude list. And during the day, if peace wandered away, I went back to my morning devotion, talked to God, and asked for His help.
At the end of that holiday season I remember thinking, I made it without losing my temper this year. I maintained a peaceful spirit despite my grief and our not-so-perfect blended family. Thank you, Jesus.
And then I recalled the plaque. It wasn’t that prayer changed things. That year, prayer changed me.
6. Look toward a new tomorrow
Creating a new normal for holidays takes time and only happens after you’ve been allowed to grieve the old normal. I no longer feel sad when Randy drags the artificial tree from the attic. That became a new normal for our family. And now, as empty nesters, we can buy a real tree again—one that just the two of us have to agree on!
That’s the beauty of new seasons. If you find yourself enveloped in grief this holiday season, remind yourself there’s always hope for a new tomorrow. God’s steadfast love and mercy through the passage of time help heal a grieving heart. There are brighter days ahead.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Gayla Grace serves on staff with FamilyLife Blended® and is passionate about equipping blended families as a writer and a speaker. She holds a master’s degree in Psychology and Counseling and is the author of Stepparenting With Grace: A Devotional for Blended Families and co-author of Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Gayla and her husband, Randy, have been married since 1995 in a “his, hers, and ours” family. She is the mom to three young adult children and stepmom to two.