Grief As A "Stepchild"
Updated: Jun 12
I’m not one hundred percent sure of the best way to start writing this so I’m going to try and give you an idea of who my stepfather was. This won’t do it justice but it’ll be something.
He was one of the best people I know, arguably the best. I have never felt a love like his; it was pure and unconditional. He was a good man with no agendas, navigating his way through the world with a childlike innocence. He was a silly man, so SO silly. I was endlessly rolling my eyes in his company. The dumbest jokes you could ever imagine. Literal nonsense. I live in England and he lived in Sri Lanka with my mum and siblings, it’s been a long distance relationship for the last ten years. A couple of years ago he found YouTube and I would get multiple videos a day about the most random things. Goats talking level random. It was so annoying and I used to complain about it regularly. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was these videos that made me feel connected, to him and to the rest of my family. I wish I knew how important those goats were at the time.
He was extra special to me and to understand that I’m going to have to go into some detail about my biological father and my family dynamics. My mother’s side of the family is Sri Lankan. My biological father is Jamaican. They met in Brixton and he turned out to be a not so great human being. My mum ended up pregnant and decided to keep me, obviously. My mum left him and the country and we went to Sri Lanka where, when I was six, she met my stepfather. I hated him at first. Who was this new addition? Why is he getting involved? When will he leave me alone? He never left me alone. I was loved so fiercely and every barrier I put in between us came crumbling down.
He and my mum got married and and fast-forward nineteen years there were five of us. My stepfather, my mum, me and the kids he had with my mum. It was the way he treated me in our new family dynamic that is the truest testament to his character. Not once did he differentiate between “his children” and me. If anything, he went out of his way to make sure we were all treated the same. He loved us the same. Shouted at us the same. Encouraged us the same. Annoyed us the same. The reason I mentioned that my biological father is Jamaican is because I don’t look like the rest of my family. This is something that only came into play outside my family dynamic. I was his child and a part of his family and that was that.
It is important for me to note that prejudice and racism is something I had to deal with subtly and not so subtly being brought up in a country as small and sheltered as Sri Lanka. I was the only black child in my school. I wasn’t necessarily darker in complexion than the majority of my peers but I definitely looked different. I was “bigger” than the average Sri Lankan girl and had wild, curly hair that neither my mother nor me had any idea of how to manage. Boys I considered to be my friends would line up in the corridors and shout “king kong” at me. I didn’t quite understand the intent behind those words at the time and I highly doubt they did either but it hurt all the same. It still does when I allow myself to think about it properly. Kids can be cruel. On a more subtle level, I would have adults acting overtly shocked that I was a part of my family unit whenever I was introduced to them. This hurt more because it didn’t isolate me on my own, it isolated me from the people who made me feel safe.
I spent years trying to change myself to fit in. Chemically straightening my hair so I could “be more like the other girls”, developing unhealthy eating habits so I could physically shrink myself to “be more like the other girls” and in hindsight, which was the most damaging, convincing myself that I didn’t have a different storyline to the rest. This protective denial brought on a huge amount self inflicted pressure and anxiety, most of which I still carry with me today.
My stepfather was one of the few Sri Lankans I have met who, never having had any prior connection to me, accepted me for exactly who I was. A majority of my experiences were often with people who could not grasp an unconventional family dynamic. But not him, there were no questions asked. He revelled in my difference.
This is the core of my love for this man; it was his presence in my life that fuelled me with enough self worth to try and allow myself to be just that. Myself; unruly curls and all.
As much as I have always appreciated my stepfather, I definitely took his love and acceptance for granted. This, I believe is the result of the best kind of “step” parenting. I knew he was going to love me regardless of anything I said or did. The same way my biological mother loves me. I recognise now that this was a privilege.
I didn’t realise how integral his role was in me feeling like a part of my family. Now that he isn’t here, I feel like a piece of wool that is unravelling rapidly from it’s ball. From this point I am going to stop referring to him as my stepfather because that’s not who he was. He was my dad.
My dad died of pancreatic cancer and the month leading up to his death was hell. He was in hospital in a vegetative state (A vegetative state is when a person is awake but showing no signs of awareness – thanks Google) and my siblings and I were in his room with him. A nurse comes in to check him and is being friendly with us. Asking my brother and sister if they were his kids. They said yes. That’s when I first felt the tug of the piece of wool coming undone – she didn’t think I could be his. There are no words to express what I felt in that moment.
Imposter syndrome - I have felt it to varying degrees all throughout my life. It’s something that’s commonly spoken about, especially if you are a woman in a workplace. Unfortunately for me, my grief has had an additional layer of feeling like a fraud. I was at my dad’s funeral, undoubtedly one of the worst days of my life, feeling out of place. Feeling paranoid. Do these people know who I am? Do they know how much this man meant to me? I HATE that this sacred day was shrouded in a filthy layer of feeling like I didn’t belong. This layer is something that has wrapped itself around me. It feels disgusting.
It was a year since he died on the seventh of February. The day was hard enough as it is but this extra layer stifled me. My mother put up a photo of him of Facebook with a lovely caption to commemorate him and the day. The comments came flooding in. The comments were mainly about her and my siblings. There was no mention of me. I even saw comments from members of my family that didn’t include me. It felt as though I was going to suffocate under this added layer. I spent a part of the day googling “grief as a stepchild” hoping to see something I could relate to. Something to help me feel seen. I’m here, my heart is broken too. I didn’t see anything remotely helpful or comforting. That is the main reason I’m writing this. I doubt that this will be helpful or comforting, It’s just a fragment of my feelings dealing with “non traditional” grief. But, if you see yourself in this experience in anyway, you are not alone. Your feelings are real and valid and I’m so sorry that you have to deal with it on top of everything else. You deserve better.