After the Death of a Spouse

By Danny Oertli
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Stephanie Buscema

Suddenly, I was the single father of a 4-year-old Disney princess and a little boy who had just learned to walk.

We look like most other families pouring out of a minivan at the mall. My wife, Rayna, emerges first, chatting with our oldest child, Grace, the social butterfly of the family. Next is Jack, our budding engineer. Bringing up the rear is little Maggie, sporting her ever-present I-didn’t-do-it smile. To an outsider, there is little to distinguish us from other families, but we are a unique puzzle that only God could have put together.

A missing piece

I married my high school sweetheart, Cyndi. Not long after, she gave birth to Grace. Two years later, we adopted Jack. Life was full of sippy cups, diapers and car seats — and it was good.

In February of 2002, Cyndi died of a heart attack after a long fight with cancer. Our family was turned upside down. Suddenly, I was the single father of a 4-year-old Disney princess and a little boy who had just learned to walk. We moved through life together — the meals, the playdates, the tears — every day reminded of what was missing in our family.

Blending our family

Two years after Cyndi’s death, I met Rayna, and I was soon surprised to discover that I’d fallen head-over-heels in love. Rayna was beautiful and sweet, and she knew how to make meals that weren’t limited to carrot sticks and cheese tortillas. If ever God had given me a gift, it was Rayna, and I married her before she had time to change her mind.

We felt that God had brought us together, that something redemptive and powerful was happening. But blending a family after the death of a spouse is not easy, especially when it comes to parenting. The kids were confused. Suddenly, Rayna wasn’t the fun friend who would show up to carve pumpkins and eat ice cream. Now she was asking them to go to bed and clean up their rooms.

Gentle validation

Rayna recognized the confusion, so she intentionally changed her tone when interacting with the children. “I know you’re not used to this,” she would say. I watched, amazed, as her gentle approach and acknowledgement of the new environment validated the kids’ feelings and helped ease the transition.

Spouses entering a blended family are faced with an abundance of awkward social interactions. “So, what’s it like being the second mom?” “Do you think you’ll ever have kids of your own?” Rayna graciously endured the questions, but I saw clearly the need to love and honor my wife in public. I even tried to pre-empt the awkward questions, affirming Rayna’s role in our family. She was the mom; she was the wife.

Honoring the past

As our new family grew together, Rayna and I knew we needed to honor the children’s past, too. For families brought together after the death of a spouse, this can be a tricky tightrope to walk. To help the kids remember Cyndi even as they embraced Rayna, we decided it would be good for them to keep pictures of Cyndi. I shared stories of Cyndi, telling Rayna how much Cyndi would have loved her, telling the kids how proud their mother would have been. We also included Cyndi’s family in many of the kids’ events. Over time, the kids appreciated the heritage of faith Cyndi had begun and were grateful for the role Rayna now played in their lives.

Blending our family after Cyndi’s death was a process of allowing God to put the pieces together. And God added another piece to the puzzle when Rayna gave birth to Maggie. Now we are the proud parents of three first-borns. What a wonderfully complex and beautiful puzzle.

Copyright © 2011 by Danny Oertli. Focus on the Family.

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