The question: My mother passed away a few years ago. Now my father’s dating. I’m very happy for him, but I’m not sure how to behave. I feel silly as I'm an adult. Do we act like we’re all one family, or is it okay to keep some distance?
The answer: Dealing with the loss of a parent can be a very upsetting and emotional experience, regardless of the age of the parent, the predictability of the death and even the quality or closeness of one’s relationship with a parent.
In addition to the normal emotions that occur when any of us are faced with making sense of the death of a loved one, the loss of a parent poses particular challenges when we are faced with accepting a new partner that may on the surface be appearing to take the role of our deceased parent.
As children (regardless of our age), we tend to view our parents as one collective entity or unit. Of course our wish is for our parents to be happy, but it can be difficult to imagine a parent creating a new life with a new partner.
There may be myriad emotions you are experiencing. It is quite normal to be feeling some negative feelings or even resentment toward your father’s new partner. There may be worry that she will somehow try to take the place of your mother, or that somehow the feelings your father had toward your mother will lessen. There can be a feeling of betrayal – that if somehow you were to accept your father’s new partner that you would be betraying the memory of your mother.
The reality is that no one will ever take the place and role of your mother in your family. Your mother will always be your mother (regardless of whether a new partner enters your family), and to your father she will always be the mother of his children.
There is no clear-cut answer on how you can best interact with your new father’s new partner. Certainly there is no need to “act” in a particular way, as this would both be exhausting and would likely come across as forced or fake.
Speak with your father about your feelings. Chances are that he is experiencing some mixed feelings as well about how to move forward in a way that honours your mother’s memory. He may be concerned about the same things you are, and may be worried about the impact of his dating on you and other family members. He may not have the words to express how he is feeling. Give him permission to do so. Be honest about how you are feeling. Let him know that you are glad to see him dating, and that you want nothing more than for him to be happy in his life moving forward. Let him know that you miss your mom though, and that it is hard for you at times to see him with a new partner. Ask him what his expectations are of you and how you behave toward his new partner. You may experience some relief in speaking to him, as he may reassure you of your feelings and the worries you have.
Remember, you don’t have to love your father’s new partner; you don’t even have to like her. But you do need to demonstrate respect for your father’s decision and demonstrate respect toward the partner he is with. Focus on the joy and happiness your father’s partner brings to him. Hopefully, at some point, his partner will earn your trust. Over time, you all will find a new normal for the revised family constellation.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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