‘They had to grow up too fast. I’m here to pick up where their dad left off.’: Bonus dad parenting grieving sons says ‘I’m helping them the best I know how’

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“This post is written by my husband on earth, David.

On my way to work this morning, a song started to play by an artist named Kolby Cooper. It was called ‘Curse October.’ I listened and couldn’t help but be struck by the lyrics. It made me really examine my two bonus sons and what they have endured in life at such a young age. It made me think about the importance of truly understanding their pain and how important my relationship has been, is now, and will always be for them. It really pushed me to write about the experiences I have had stepping into the lives of two young boys who have just been through hell. Boys who needed so much.

Hopefully my experiences, my fails, and successes in our journey together could help someone else who may be fresh in a relationship with a widow with young children. The lyrics to this song are as follows:

‘I still remember that October day
It was hot like you never liked the sun beatin’ on my face
The doctor told us it’d be the one to take you away
We went to bed that night, knowin’ our lives’ll change
And I still remember wakin’ to the news
Boys your daddy’s gone, come say goodbye for good
I cried all my tears, went back to my room
I shut the door hit the floor askin’ God why you

Curse October for makin’ me grow too fast
Like most things in life the good ones never last
People say he died to young, I can’t say I disagree
Curse October for takin’ you from me

Never knew depression like I did that year
Fourteen and a lot to learn, wishin’ you were here
Just needed to talk for a minute or two
But I couldn’t go by that stone it put me in a bad mood

Curse October for makin’ me grow too fast
Like most things in life the good ones never last
People say he died to young, I can’t say I disagree
Curse October for takin’ you from me

Everywhere there’s somethin’ to remind me of you
Like this truck I drive and to tell you the truth
It gets better everyday
But it’s still hard as hell and that’s somethin’ that won’t change

Curse October for makin’ me grow too fast
Like most things in life the good ones never last
People say he died to young, I can’t say I disagree
Curse October for takin’ you from me’

There are a few things I hand-picked from this song that really struck a chord in me. First, the line saying, ‘And I still remember wakin’ to the news / Boys your daddy’s gone, come say goodbye for good / I cried all my tears, went back to my room / I shut the door hit the floor askin’ God why you.’ The loss of a parent is devastating for anyone. But especially for young children who absolutely love their parents with all they have. Especially when it is sudden and unexpected. I couldn’t help but think, what did their little hearts think when Mom broke the news to them? Were they angry? Were they sad? Were they confused and scared? I know they had to be all of the above and then some.

A defining moment like this is what triggers a domino effect of life-altering emotions and feelings we as bonus or stepparents simply cannot fully comprehend unless we too have lived through similar circumstances. The second line that stuck out to me was, ‘Never knew depression like I did that year / Fourteen and a lot to learn, wishin’ you were here / Just needed to talk, for a minute or two / But I couldn’t go by that stone, it put me in a bad mood.’ At the young ages of 8 and 10, I am certain my bonus sons had no clue what depression and grief would look like in their lives. When I first started dating April, I had no clue what this would look like in her boys, either.

You see, when we picture depression, I think most would agree we picture someone in dark clothing with a hood over their head, isolated from everyone, just contemplating life. When we picture grief, I would safely assume we picture someone sobbing in their knees in a sitting-down position, knees bent, and arms wrapped around their legs. We picture someone curled up in bed, clinging to a pillow while they sob. I would put money on the fact we would never picture a young boy in a basketball jersey playing baseball, or riding a bike around the neighborhood. It took quite some time for me to realize how this looks in my bonus sons.

Courtesy of April and David

For the oldest son, I learned depression and grief for him were expressed in extreme attachment, not only to his mother but to anything and everything that would remind him of dad, that dad was good at. He yearned for direction. He needed the male relationship of father and son, but in the beginning, was too afraid and did not know why. He had to grow up ‘too fast,’ just as this song mentions. He was the oldest and took on the role of protector and the ‘do-it-all’ boy at the young age of 10 years old. He didn’t trust me and always ‘knew better’ early on in our relationship. At times, it wore on me. Luckily, I came to realize he was thrust into this role in which he thought what he was doing was needed, what he was doing would make dad proud, and what was expected of him.

Today, these very traits are still present. The only difference is they are a smaller blip on the radar. It was extremely important for me to allow him to be the man he thought he had to be. But at the same time, to try and gently teach him I am here to help. I am here to love him and his mom and take care of them. Most importantly, I am here to pick up where his dad left off. What this looks like is not replacing him, just simply being there to teach, to father, to coach sports, to camp, to fish, and do anything and everything he once was used to doing with dad. Also, letting him know, feel, understand, and realize it is okay to let go of those responsibilities and be a kid again. Run around, get dirty, play with friends, and enjoy life again.

For my second bonus son, the youngest of the two, it was quite a bit different. In him, the depression and grief were expressed in a much different way and still are. Early on in our relationship, I quickly realized he dealt with his depression and grief through anger. When we first met, he wasn’t scared. He wasn’t cautious of me, like his older brother. He was okay with our new relationship but needed all the same help his older brother needed. On the outside, one would assume he was a normal young boy just enjoying what life has to offer him. But deep inside, he was hurting and not able to express his feelings. The amount of anger and frustration would build and build until it finally poured over and it was extreme at times.

Courtesy of April and David

He did not know how to handle his feelings and thoughts and did not know what would help. For me coming into his life, I truly can say I was clueless as well. Over time, I realized the best thing for me to do was interact. Not ask him about his feelings, not try to fix his emotions and destructive outbursts. Just be there to play with him. Be there to shoot hoops. Be there to fish, to fill a void in which was huge in his life. To this day, he still needs these very same things. He still seeks attention from me. He still would love it if I did what he wanted all the time, and surprisingly most of the time he’d prefer it just him and I, not including his older brother (probably because they are at the competitive, ‘I-am-better-than-you’ stage in life). He still has a hard time expressing feelings, and this is okay.

As a bonus parent, it is important to know you will not have all the answers. You won’t always do what is right or what is best for them. What is most important is being present, listening, and experiencing life with them through what they perceive as fun, what they think their dad or mom would have loved to do. To always respect and honor their lost father or mother. Always show them positivity when it comes to their lost parent. The last topic from this song I would like to touch on is when he sings, ‘Just needed to talk for a minute or two / But I couldn’t go by that stone it put me in a bad mood,’ and, ‘Everywhere there’s somethin’ to remind me of you / Like this truck I drive and to tell you the truth / It gets better every day / But it’s still hard as hell and that’s somethin’ that won’t change.’

In the few short years I have been in the lives of my two bonus sons, they have grown so far from when I first met them. When their dad was killed in the line of duty, April made the decision to bury him close to them in a beautiful setting so she and the boys could go to see him, talk to him, and share laughs and cries any day they feel the need. In the beginning, though, this was only a reality for April. The boys did not want any part of going to see where dad rests. I know this had to hurt April quite a bit, but their little hearts and lives were just shattered and turned upside down. You cannot blame them for the reservations they had. Time always heals, and for them it certainly took time, but when the time was right they healed enough to allow themselves to visit dad.

Courtesy of April and David

One thing I found to help in my experience is showing the boys I too am interested in visiting their dad. Showing them it is healthy, it is reality, and it is a way to heal, to love, and to let out your burdens of what life throws at you. Most importantly, they found out it is a way for them to cry out to the one they were able to once come to and hug. The one they ran to with problems. The one who helped them through many of life’s struggles. Here is a funny story about visiting Mike at the cemetery. As mentioned before, these two boys originally were afraid to go see Dad. Well, here we are years later and our whole family visits him an average of once a week. Oftentimes, I will take the kids myself and hang out over there to pass time if Mom has things she needs to get done, like editing or another step for her book launch.

Each of the two has different attitudes and personalities in life. Especially when we are visiting dad. Josh tends to be lighthearted, but serious and mature. Jason, on the other hand, likes to be a comedian, just like his dad. The other day I took Josh, Jason, and my daughter, Savannah, to visit Mike. We got dinner, brought lawn chairs, and ate dinner while visiting Mike. Savannah loves to sit on the grass and just chat away while there. So, we were hanging out and Savannah was eating some French fries the boys gave her. She proceeded to take a bite, then look down (right where Mike is buried), and try to share a fry with him. We all were cracking up, and she was so focused on sharing a fry with the ground where Mike lay.

Courtesy of April and David

While we all thought it was hilarious and started to film it, Jason, of course, had to be Jason and take it to another level of comedic value. So he proceeded to crack a joke. He laughed, and then with a straight face proceeded to say, ‘Well, she’s probably sharing her fries with my dad because he’s starving. I mean, he hasn’t eaten in years.’ This may seem like just a funny story. To me, it is a sign of how amazingly far they both have come. Never in my life would I have thought they would be eating and enjoying the company of Dad where he is buried. I most certainly never would have guessed Jason would have been making fun of his dad, who is no longer with us!

Courtesy of April and David

As hard as it may seem as a bonus parent, I have also found when dealing with discipline and respect and character in your bonus kids, it is important to show love and respect toward their still-living parent. Especially when the one they lost was so good at it. Do not let them see negativity and disrespect. In my case, my bonus sons need reminders from time to time in regard to self-image and respect, especially toward their mom. This is one thing I know their dad, Mike, was so good at. I know how much he constantly told them to be good for their mom, to respect her, and treat her well.

Sometimes, when I feel as if my words may not get through to them, or when I am failing in the disciplinary role or teaching these two, I will take them to the cemetery to talk to dad. I do not do this to guilt them. I do this for them to be able to let go and talk to dad about struggles that may be causing the frustrations leading to outbursts. I do this so I can talk to Mike and ask for his help and guidance as well. And lastly, I have them apologize to him. Harsh? Maybe. But it stings them, it pierces their heart to really understand any level of disrespect to his bride is not okay. They feel it. They tear up and genuinely apologize. And guess what? This hard life lesson has worked. It doesn’t have to happen often, but when it does I can see and feel a sense of relief in them both.

The last thing I would like to leave you with is this pain, this grief and depression, will most likely never go away. Grief is a lifelong struggle, and it needs to be known it is okay for this to be reality. The fact of the matter is simply and exactly what the words of this song speak. The song sums it up the best when it says, ‘It gets better every day / But it’s still hard as hell and that’s somethin’ that won’t change.’ Let them know it is okay to feel this anger. To feel the sadness. It is natural, and there is nothing wrong with this. Be there for them and help them through the bad times the best you know how.”

Courtesy of April and David

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by April and David Katherman-Redgrave of Gilroy, California. You can follow their journey on InstagramFacebook, their website, and their blog. Preorder April’s book, ‘Through Hell and High Water: A Police Widows Story of Tragic Loss and Redeeming Love,’ here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more from April:

‘I washed his blood off my arms. ‘How am I going to live without him?’ I BEGGED God to send someone to take care of us.’: Widow finds love after tragic loss of husband

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