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Death in a Stepfamily: The Importance of Making a Will

  • Laura Petherbridge
  • 2014 24 Mar
Death in a Stepfamily: The Importance of Making a Will

“Laura, Dad has had a stroke; the doctors don’t think he’s going to make it.” I instantly recognized the voice of my brother, Mark.

When I got the call I was in Tyler, Texas getting ready to stand on a platform before 750 women who were attending a Cowgirl Get Together and completely enthused and ready to have a fun time. Ironically, my message for the evening was my favorite entitled, “Who’s Your Daddy?”

How would I speak those words now as my own father lay dying in Buffalo, New York, thousands of miles away?

My brother’s simple statement launched an unexpected domino effect of emotions, activity, and decisions.

I remained at the event and with God’s help finished my speaking commitment. I flew into Buffalo on a grey and gloomy January morning. Mark picked me up from the airport, we went directly to ICU.

When I looked at the man standing outside my father’s room, his familiar hazel eyes were the first thing I noticed. It took me a few minutes to connect those eyes to the person. Then I realized it was my stepbrother, Mark (yes, it is confusing sometimes), whom I had not seen in over 25 years. My dad’s second marriage was to his mother, and he adopted Mark and his brother. Dad and my first stepmom also had a child together. They divorced in the mid 80’s. We all became adults and went our separate ways. In the years that followed I periodically would ask my dad how they were doing. But I had almost no contact with my stepbrothers or my half-brother after my father’s second marriage dissolved.

And now here we were. Life had thrown us all an unexpected curve ball, which created a stepfamily once again. During this emotionally draining time we were required to make massive, overwhelming, life-and-death decisions together.

My dad’s brain was gone; the stroke had affected his major organs. A respirator was keeping him alive, but his ability to live was dead.

Before I arrived, the hospital staff was pressuring my stepbrother to pull the plug on Dad’s respirator. It was costing money to keep him alive. I shall always be eternally grateful to my stepbrother Mark, for his decision to keep dad alive until I could get there to say goodbye. Although he barely knew me, he gave me a gracious and life-changing gift.

Exhausted from traveling, the ambush of emotions was more than I could have ever anticipated. And yet it was necessary to speak with the doctor, review the scans, and make the complex life and death decision. In unity my brother, my stepbrother, and I knew what Dad would want us to do. We told the staff to remove Dad’s respirator. The three of his by his side, I prayed over him before they disconnected the equipment.

The two brothers decided to go to the waiting room. I stayed by my father’s side watching him breathe his last breaths. An unpleasant experience, shockingly on similar to what I’ve seen in movies. But he was my daddy, and I wanted to be with him when he moved from this world to the next. As the machines slowly dropped their pace, I handed my earthly daddy over to my heavenly Daddy.

If my brothers and I thought the decision making was over, we were sorely mistaken. Although I asked my father many times to please obtain a will he never did. This made our season of grief even more complicated. As the sorrow mounted a frenzy of paperwork was thrust into our faces. We were not allowed to leave the hospital until we decided about cremation, funeral homes, organ donations, etc.

I was utterly amazed over the harmony that descended upon my stepbrother, my brother and I as we worked together through this uncharted territory of death and dying.

In the days that followed more decisions had to be made by our newly reassembled stepfamily. Things such as: how long and expensive the obituaries should be, where to have a funeral, how to get the word to extended family, and what food to serve at the luncheon afterwards. In addition we pondered what pictures to display, when to clean out his apartment, who should receive his possessions, on and on it went.

It was exhausting.

The day of Dad’s memorial service we honored him together. I saw family members I hadn’t seen in years, and it was great to hug them and reminisce. But afterwards—I crashed.

All the travel, sleeping in a different bed 5 nights out of 7, watching my dad die, making major decisions, the grief, and reliving the stepfamily life was overwhelming.

I was more emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually drained than I have ever been in my life. It took months to recover.

Often we think that stepfamily issues are absent or dissolve if the children are adults. But that’s untrue. As someone who’s been involved in stepfamily ministry for a number of years I thought I’d be prepared for this moment.

I was wrong.

I cannot encourage stepfamilies enough to prepare legal documents which recognize, plan, and discuss all of the details and what should and shouldn’t occur when someone in the family dies. My husband and I have obtained an knowledgeable attorney who understands stepfamily dynamics to formulate a trust and an estate plan that should ease the stress when one or both of us dies.

If you truly love your family, I advise you to do the same.

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, stepfamilies, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When ‘I Do’ Becomes ‘I Don’t’—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, The Smart Stepmom, co-authored with Ron Deal, and 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom (May 2014). Her website is

101 tips101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom: Expert Advice From One Stepmom to Another (May, 2014, Bethany House) is written for any woman dating, engaged or married to a man with children. Growing up having two stepmoms, plus a stepmom herself for 28 years, Laura offers bite-sized nuggets of wisdom and truth for how to survive and thrive in today’s stepfamily.

Publication date: March 24, 2014