“Death is complicated. Death hurts. Trying to explain loss to a child, trying to explain that their dad died when they are only 5, 4, and 2, is impossible. Then helping them understand and embrace their new dad on earth is complicated, to say the least.
I want to help them understand it is okay to love both. You can love your new earthly daddy, the one that is here to help you, hold you, comfort you, and it will never take away from your love for the daddy that gave you life who is now in Heaven.
When Dustin and I got married, it was important for us to include the kids as part of the ceremony. As much as the wedding was a celebration of our love, it was even more so our families joining together. Instead of having bridesmaids or groomsmen, we had the children stand up beside us during the ceremony. Dustin didn’t only declare vows to me, but he spoke vows to the children as well.
‘In just a little bit, I tell Mom ‘I do.’ And with that, I promise you forever too. We won’t always like each other or get along, but we need to promise we will love each other forever.’
Dustin gave me a wedding ring, and he gave tokens to the four children as well, his daughter included. A wedding band is a physical symbol of his love and promise, and it was important for the children to have one too. The girls were given a bracelet, and Levi was given a Swiss Army knife. We wanted to have something they would keep and use forever and reflect back on this important day for our family.
It is important for the children to know Dustin is safe. They need to know they are physically safe with him, but they can also trust him. And this means trusting him with the things they don’t even understand or things that hurt, meaning processing the loss of their dad. Most of the time, the children don’t understand what they are feeling or simply don’t understand, and it is our responsibility to provide a safe place for them to open up. But how do we get there?
In introducing my children to Dustin, we found the most pivotal piece of advice would be to simply be proactive as parents. We are very sensitive to the children’s behavior and what it means, but we have to take an intentional step in initiating conversations or actions to facilitate a solid relationship. It means understanding when a child is acting out or misbehaving, it is an indicator of some sort of inner turmoil and realizing children at their young age might not know how to label or express their feelings. It is our job as adults to help them.
A lot of the adjusting to their new dad means most of the effort fell on Dustin. Our children were very young when Marcus died, so they were desperate for a male role model in their life. Because of this, they were drawn to Dustin immediately and were eager to accept him in their lives. But as their relationships developed, we began to see hesitancy and a little confusion.
We took our youngest, now 4, to therapy to help us understand how to help her. As the first line of defense, I think therapy is immensely helpful for helping children cope and for adults to learn the correct tools to help them. The way children process information is completely different than adults. We have learned so much from therapists who have taught us how to deal with their coping mechanisms, what is a normal response for children, and guide us with the best words to say.
Talking about their dad with Dustin has been one of the most substantial tools for bonding. I created ‘daddy books’ shortly after Marcus died, which are basically individualized picture books, one for each child, with pictures of them with Marcus or just Marcus. It has pictures of him being goofy, pictures from our wedding, and pictures of him with them. Not only do these books help the children remember their dad, but it has helped grow their relationship with Dustin. Dustin will often read these books with each child and it has encouraged a sweet relationship with him.
It allows comfortable conversations about the really hard stuff and the fact he is stepping into that father role. It helps the children understand talking about Marcus to Dustin is safe. Dustin honors Marcus as their father, and by introducing the conversation, it shows them he is a safe person to talk to. The complications of his role are dispelled because he is willing to talk about their dad, which could be confusing.
We were drawing shortly after we moved from New Hampshire to be close to Dustin in Iowa. Scarlett drew a family picture, which we assumed the person next to Mom was Marcus. When I asked her to tell me who was who, the person was actually Dustin. Levi did a similar thing when my sister watched the kids while we went on our honeymoon. Levi drew Dustin into his family portrait for a homework assignment for school. It was so wonderful to see such acceptance so soon into our marriage!
Individual time with each child is important, even outside of introducing a new parent. But to really foster the relationship between the child and new parent, having one-on-one time is pivotal. To create a genuine relationship means bonding on an individual level. The new parent needs to learn each child’s unique personality and emotions. Connection through touch, lots of hugs (if the child is receptive), placing a hand on their shoulder, maintaining eye contact. It is important the new parent takes the lead and makes 7/8 effort, and let the child make the final reach. This means if a child isn’t willing to reciprocate the connection, don’t force it. Be available and continue to make the effort.
Participating in anniversaries or remembering their dad is important for the children. It shows them Dustin values him as a member of the family, and their emotions and connection to him are important. Dustin participated in the memorial race we organized in honor of their dad, visits the gravesite with us, and will participate in stories and conversations. The more casual the conversation, the more connection it produces. Talking about their dad doesn’t need to be a big formal sit-down, which could be intimidating for anyone. And for the family, the sentiment stays the same. That parent is important for the child, so talking about them in a positive light and engaging in conversation is just as valuable. It is putting the child’s needs above your opinion of that person.
Passing by a cemetery, Eloise exclaimed, ‘Daddy’s grave!’ (A thousand miles away from his grave.)
Dustin responded, ‘That’s not your daddy’s grave sweetie. His grave is in New Hampshire.’
‘But I want to talk to him!’
‘You can talk to him anywhere. His body is in his grave but his soul is in Heaven. You can talk to him right now!’
It also means just being physically present in their lives or being present like their birth daddy would have been. This means soccer games, homework time, putting them to bed, tickle fights and wrestling, and prayer time. Engaging them in meaningful conversation, or even casual shooting the breeze, encourages closeness. Words are important. Saying, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you’ means so much. Dustin tells the kids how much their daddy loves them all the time. And he tells them he loves them, too.
What the children would call Dustin was something we didn’t even think about until a sweet friend mentioned it to us. When he was first introduced to the kids, I initially referred to him by his name. The kids did not meet him until we were serious and knew we were going to get married. We wanted the kids to know he was an important part of the family, but if they didn’t feel comfortable calling him dad, it was okay. But if they wanted to, that is fine too!
We put the ball in their court and told them they can call him whatever they’d like. (We did draw a line at Goo Goo Daddy Face from Eloise…) Even with the silly name, it was an excellent conversation to have, and even better, she felt like she could have fun with it. They will now call him by his name or call him dad, but dad comes with more frequency as time goes on. When speaking to each other, they will call him dad but not all the time to his face. Dustin and I wanted the kids to know communication is important for all subjects and wherever the kids are emotionally is normal.
We have to be patient, give the kids time, and trust if we continue to put in the effort, the bond will continue to grow. Even though they are starting to call him dad, it doesn’t take away from their birth dad. It warms my heart to hear them calling Dustin ‘Daddy,’ and even more when they whisper, ‘I love you.’ It means they accept and trust him, and embrace him as their dad on earth, the one who stepped up to raise them and love them in the absence of their birth dad, who didn’t have a choice to not raise them.
While adjusting to a new dad on earth is a really big deal and shouldn’t be taken lightly, it doesn’t have to be difficult. With intentionality and grace, a beautiful relationship can develop and the children will thrive. Even though Dustin and I are in the beginning stages of blending our family, we have learned quickly children are resilient. They want to love and to be loved, and with attention and understanding, the family will be healthy and thriving in only a matter of time!”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Fergesen of West Des Moines, IA. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more from Nicole:
‘I came downstairs to 3 missed calls from my dad. The hotel staff found my husband unconscious. He was 32. No warning. My love was there one second, and gone the next.’: Wife suddenly loses husband to heart disease after collapsing on treadmill
‘At 20, people judged our choice to get married. ‘You have to experience your single years and party it up.’ I didn’t want it. I wanted Marcus.’: Widow remarries after loss, ‘I love two incredible men’
Do you know someone who could benefit from this story? SHARE on Facebook to let them know a community of support is available.