Healing Cinderellas: Losing a Parent and Gaining a “Wicked Stepmother”
Sara’s willowy form, icy blue eyes and platinum blonde hair were stunning. She was beautiful, bright and sang like an angel. Sara fit the “Cinderella” profile, but her heartbreaking story paralleled the Grimm plot too closely.
How do you help a “Cinderella” through the devastating loss of a parent, followed by her father or mother’s hasty, unwise remarriage? Wicked stepmothers or stepfathers are all too common.
My eight-year-old daughter Brie and her BFF, Sara, bounced around our backyard in leopard leotards belting Amy Grant tunes. (It was the 80’s. Amy was cool…) Sara’s parents, dynamic Christian leaders, appeared to be blissfully happy to the outside world. I later learned that Sara spent many evenings singing in the backyard with her toy microphone trying to drown out the shouts of her bickering parents. But even with an imperfect marriage, the Simons were beloved by all who knew them.
Sam was a mild-mannered associate pastor on our church staff. Sam’s wife Shelly, my prayer partner and bosom buddy, led a citywide women’s Bible study. She was brilliant and bubbly, a devoted friend.
One spring Sunday morning Sam received a frantic call from his wife. “Honey, could you come home? I’m not feeling well.” She spoke in a raspy voice. Sam, married to his job, replied, “I’ll get there when I can.” The busy pastor hurried to check the Welcome Center, counted ushers and offering plates and checked his e-mail for any new entries. By the time he arrived home, Shelly’s limp body was slumped on the sofa. She was dead from a massive heart attack at the age of forty-nine.
Sam cradled her head in his arms, weeping uncontrollably. He shook his fist at the sky. “God, I’m your servant!” he screamed. “How could you let this happen to me?” Sam was so stunned and overwhelmed with guilt and remorse he forgot to tell his daughter Sara. Sara heard the devastating news of her mother’s death from an usher. The grief-stricken 18-yr-old sped home in her Mom’s Volvo as the ambulance pulled out of the driveway.
The funeral was enormous. Countless women from Shelly’s Bible Study wept aloud as the casket lid was opened for the service. Hundreds of church members packed the sanctuary to mourn her loss. Sara’s friends and teachers came by to give their condolences, but Sara stood silently, stiff as a statue. She never looked inside the casket to say one last goodbye. Sara didn’t want to remember her Mom that way, a wooden form surrounded by satin and lace.
Thus began the awful Cinderella story. Pastor Dad dealt with his grief by disappearing. In a few short months, he left the ministry, left his daughter and moved to a small “new age” community in northern Arizona. He deserted his daughter, denied his faith and married an atheist (and a wiccan). Sara was left to fend for herself.
Our beautiful Cinderella barely survived the holocaust of grief and abandonment. She exercised several hours a day to deal with the stress and dwindled down to ninety pounds. Sara had a full ride to the University of Arizona, so she threw herself into work and school, still feeling isolated and broken. Even though she attempted to contact her Dad, “Wicked Step Mom” would not hear of it. The cold-hearted rejection Sara faced almost destroyed her. Only after a decade of pain and isolation, Sara met her “Prince,” (if the shoe fits, wear it!) a nurturing, patient man who lovingly took her into his arms and comforted her tragic losses.
I’d like to tell you that this is the only Cinderella I have known: devastated by a parent’s untimely death and broken, neglected and abused by a stepparent. But I encounter Cinderellas every day, and I long to help them.
Two issues plague these precious ones. First is the death of a parent. Second is the appearance of the “wicked stepmothers.” I would like to recommend my husband’s article on “How Can Two Families Be Blended Successfully” to provide needed insight on dealing with step parent issues.
Here are a few tips you need to know to help your “Cinderella” grieve. (These issues are specific to a young adult “princess.” Younger children need other coping mechanisms as well…)
1. Sara was plunged into the sharp, painful nostalgia that accompanies the recollections of childhood–everything her mom represented in terms of security, familiarity, and protection seemed to be gone. To one degree or another, a grieving child grapples with the realization that no one knows him/her in the exact same way as their mother or father–indeed, will everknow them as their parent did.
2. “Cinderellas” like Sara depended on Mom and Dad for advice or information, or for moral support, and now have to survive without that dependable resource. Such an adjustment will be tormenting, especially if they had a pattern of interactions–conversations at certain times of the day or week, or nearly daily visits. As a loving friend, you can mentor them through the decision-making process. Become a trusted advisor and prayer partner.
3. Every survivor is vulnerable to a whole range of powerful feelings such as devastation, fear, abandonment, remorse, frustration, yearning, isolation, or confusion. Regardless of the particular circumstances of the parent’s death, it is essential to help the hurting one to express allemotions and to discuss the most frequent thoughts and challenges in regard to grief. Painful as it may be to face these powerful feelings, this is the route to healing. Connect the “Cinderellas” you know with pastors, counselors or support groups when possible.
4. Don’t try to “bury the memory” of the deceased parent. That is the heinous crime that Sara’s wicked Step Mom committed. She tried to make Sherry “disappear” from Sam and Sara’s memory. Great healing could have come from remembering Shelly WELL. What will Sara keep or give away? Not just Shelly’s possessions but Shelly’s beliefs, personality traits, habits, skills, aims, loves. Which of those will continue to reside in Sara? Which ones will she nurture? Which bring them less peace and comfort and can be let go?
Through the “Cinderella child,” parts of her Mom’s individuality and influence can thread through each day ahead, each year, adding to the tapestry of her life and the lives of others. In that dedicated way, Shelly will never die. And Sara will be free to become the princess God created her to be.