I've been having some health problems.
In order to resolve them, I did what any good adult would do: I went to the doctor. It turns out, I'm stressed. I'm stressed in the kind of way that makes your eye twitch for no apparent reason and makes you cry when you drop your fork on the ground (it had one last bite of broccoli on it, okay?).
My doctor asked me about my life and what I have experienced in the last year. I droned on about my engagement (yay!), moving to a new city, planning a wedding, financial troubles, health problems, and the passing of my stepmother.
"You said your mother-in-law died?"
"No, my stepmom."
"Oh. I was about to say...that is awful! Not that losing your stepmother isn't awful, but..."
My stepmom passed away seven months ago. This is not the first time I have experienced a less-than-sympathetic reaction. This is not the first time I have had to stifle my tears and reciprocate a stranger's words with a forced smile. Our society has an innate bias towards the word stepmother.
I blame Cinderella. Thanks, Disney.
I have to be honest here: we bickered a lot. She was stubborn. I was stubborn. We fought, but that doesn't mean that I didn't love her. It doesn't mean that it hurt any less when my father called me on that otherwise beautiful Thursday morning and told me she was gone. It doesn't mean that I didn't have to dig deeper than I ever thought possible, to find strength I didn't know I had, to organize a funeral and finalize all of the details so my dad didn't have to.
I haven't fully mourned her loss yet. I don't know if I have it in me to. She has been in my life since I was a tiny human running around with my blanket and sucking my thumb. With my wedding less than two months away, it's finally starting to hit me that she wont be present. There are certain things that have always meant more to me when she would say them. Hearing her tell me that I'm beautiful has always been one of them. I don't know why. Maybe it's because you expect your biological parents to tell you you're beautiful. Maybe it means something different when it comes from a "step." Knowing that I wont hear those words from her on that day stings. It stings the way a stranger's words sting when they assume I'm fine because I only lost a stepparent. I was only her stepdaughter.
The loss of a stepparent is confusing. Sometimes I feel guilty. Sometimes I feel angry. Sometimes I feel like I shouldn't be allowed to feel sad because she wasn't actually my mom. Sometimes I feel like I'm betraying my actual mom by feeling sad.
And, what may be the worst of all feelings, sometimes I feel like I don't get to feel sad because at times we simply didn't get along.
I know I'm not the only one who has experienced (or is experiencing) something similar. I know I'm not the only stepchild who has experienced this kind of a loss. I want to change the narrative. I want people to understand the complex range of emotions that can accompany the death of a stepparent when both biological parents are still very active in a child's (or adult's) life.
I am blessed. I have an amazing mom and I have a phenomenal dad. I also have a kick-ass stepfather whom I love dearly. Just because I have all of these things, that doesn't mean that my stepmother's death should be diluted. I am not deserving of less time to grieve or less time to process what happened simply because my bio parents are amazing.
What I am deserving of is a little bit of compassion.
It has been seven months.
And I think I have finally started to grieve.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.