There are often seasons in a stepmom’s life when she wishes her husband’s ex would move far, far away. Or, dare I say it—permanently disappear.

But when that day actually comes, it’s a lot harder than one might imagine. I know firsthand. After 30 years of having an ex-wife-in-law, my husband’s former spouse died of cancer. With only three months between diagnosis and death, her death took us by surprise.

Whether your stepfamily includes a high-maintenance mom, an absent mom, or a mom who works toward healthy co-parenting, you’ll experience a variety of emotions when she dies.

Whether your stepfamily includes a high-maintenance mom, an absent mom, or a mom who works toward healthy co-parenting, you’ll experience a variety of emotions when she dies.

Here is what I and other stepmothers have discovered when your stepchildren’s mother passes away.

Attend the funeral—or not. My stepsons had a small memorial service for their mom when she died. This was to help them, their stepdad, and her friends have an intimate time to say good-bye. She had very little remaining family.

In other situations, there may be numerous family members, coworkers, and friends, and the event might be much larger.

I left it up to my adult stepsons and daughters-in-law as to whether they wanted me at the memorial. Because their mom was angry with me, and we didn’t have a cohesive relationship during the last few years of her life, they felt it best if I didn’t attend. I agreed. But many kids, young or old, do want the stepmom present.

Let hubby go. As with any social occasion, it’s not uncommon for the stepfamily dynamic to make life more complicated and frustrating for the parent. This goes double when it’s a funeral. The goal must be to focus on what will help the kids cope and grieve their mom’s death.

When his ex-wife died, I told my husband, “I’m totally okay if you want to attend her memorial without me. I want you to support your kids and grandkids. This is your family. It’s not about me.”

If your stepchildren need dad all to themselves for a while, then love them enough to give them that as a gift. Often the greatest treasure a stepmom can offer is to step back and give the kids breathing room—or grieving room.

As hard as it is to do, remember that your husband was once in love and married to this woman. She bore him children. He might be sad. My husband was, and it didn’t upset me. Why? I knew he didn’t love her anymore; he loves me. At the same time, he grieved that at one time she was a different person, and together they created two human beings—his sons. He grieved alongside his kids for the loss of their mother and his grandchildren’s grandmother.

Prepare for change. My stepsons were adults with kids of their own when their mom died. Therefore, visitation and living arrangements weren’t affected. Obviously, if the stepkids are still under parental care when mom dies, the changes will be much more significant. (This is why it’s crucial for parents of underage children to obtain a will and legal counsel on what will happen to the children if the parent dies.)

Les Parrott's Making Happy
Get more — Free! e-booklet — Les Parrott's Making Happy

“Within a few months of the mom’s diagnosis, I realized my husband’s kids soon would be living with us full time,” stepmom Amy stated. “I wasn’t at all prepared to go from an every-other-weekend situation to being a stepmom 24/7. I love my stepkids, but after their mom died, I felt as though I was choking and couldn’t get air.

“To make it worse,” she continued, “my husband was thrilled that his kids were living with us full time. But he left for work every day and I was the one picking up the pieces. It was extremely difficult for me.”

Learn about grief. Discovering how their mom’s death affects each child or grandchild takes time. Some kids act like it isn’t a big deal; others will be overwhelmed with grief. Don’t assume that a mom who abandoned her kids won’t be missed. For that child, big or small, it may be the death of the dream that their mother would one day “show up and become my mommy.” And grief over the reality that a parent will never be able fill the void they created can be worse than the loss of a good mother.

The more emotionally stable the child is before the death of their mom often dictates how much therapy or grief support may be needed.

Breathe. Yes, in many situations it’s a relief when mom is gone. Only another stepmom truly understands. If the mom made life difficult with parental alienation, tension, fighting, and double standards, all of that usually ends after her death.

In some cases stepkids are able to embrace their stepmom more easily after their mother has gone. Now that there is no fear of hurting or being disloyal to their mother, they sometimes make room in their hearts for a stepmom.

The night my ex-wife-in-law died, my husband and I went to his grandson’s basketball game. He has always called me Nana, and I have called him grandson. But that night was different.

I worked hard to honor his biological grandmother’s place in his life. And that meant guarding my heart. But that night at his game, as I watched him shoot baskets, I was shocked by the emotions that swept over me. In an instant my heart overflowed with love, attachment, and devotion toward this lanky sixteen year old young man I have known since birth.

With tear-filled eyes, I turned to my husband, Steve, and said, “That’s my grandson out there. I’m so proud of him. I love him so much. Now, finally I don’t have to guard my heart anymore. It’s safe to allow myself to love him.”

▸  Check Out Laura’s Books

Copyright © 2016 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved.

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker. She is the author of 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom—Expert Advice from One Stepmom to Another; When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce; The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with Ron Deal; and Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. Her website is

get the book