Suzanne Potts, LMSW, MPH is a social worker and advocate who is working through the grief space one day at a time.
I will never eat a salami and cheese sandwich again without thinking about my stepdad, Richard. We had them every time he came to visit, or when we went on trips. In his final days, it was this delightful Italian staple that kept us fed while we supported him on hospice. But losing our beloved stepfather after being part of his family for so many years left me untethered and lost, wondering what our role in “family” was if there was no more connection by marriage. When does family begin and end when you lose a loved one that isn’t blood related?
When we lost my stepdad last summer to prostate cancer after seven years with this ugly disease, it created a life-size hole in many of our hearts. We all miss him for various reasons, and each of us connected with him over the course of his lifetime in different ways. I learned more about him during his last 12 days on earth than I had in 28 years he was married to my mother. Friends, family, neighbors and people he worked with as a contractor came and visited each day while he was on hospice. They told stories, laughed, cried and recounted all of the ways he had touched their lives. It was awful to witness such grief yet beautiful to experience so much outward love and affection for such a wonderful man. There were lots of goodbyes; many, many tears and stories told before he left us less than two weeks after starting hospice.
Richard was hard working (which I already knew), loving, funny, kind, talented, deeply rooted in his Northern California roots and teams (go Warriors and 49ers!) after growing up with a large Italian family. He met my mother when I was 19, and they were married a few years later one summer while I was in college. I thought he was hilarious. We talked about our different political opinions or various conspiracy theories he’d heard on the radio. He was always there with a kind word of encouragement or to help with projects around the house. He had been a general contractor with his own company, and there wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix. He helped on projects in all of his kids’ houses over the course of our lives. He was there when I played soccer in college, celebrated our wedding, attended the birth of our children, supported our move from San Diego to Austin and, from a distance, provided love and support as my stepdad. He never treated us as “step” anything. Because we were older when our parents met, my stepsisters, brothers and I experienced very little time together as a “whole” family, yet individually, we established relationships and scattered memories over the years. What happens with that tentative bond between us? Does it break after the loss of a stepparent? We weren’t very close with one another, yet what would remain of our family after all was said and done? Are you still related when the marital bond is broken by loss?
It’s true that grief brings some people closer while others lean away, unable to deal with the grief, perhaps, or unable to bear witness to others in mourning. After hearing all of the stories and seeing all of the love our stepdad received throughout his remarkable life, we connected with his family and friends that we hadn’t seen in years. United in our grief and love for my stepdad, we connect, talk, tell stories and remember his life and legacy. We’ve found a new network of family that consists of a large blend of people that has embraced us as their own. We found that our family has grown without labels of “step”, that family is what you make of it. Step, half, whole, adopted – it doesn’t matter what ties bind you or your reason “why” you are family. We’ve found friends and family that consistently show up in our lives and for that we are grateful, It could just be the lasting legacy he provided for us all was the gift of family.