A man I’ve known for many years died recently after a long illness. Although I was not close to him, two women, family members I love dearly, were. The three of them have been a family for over 35 years. Although they were not related by blood, they were related by choice – by love.
Some of us are lucky to have close-knit families who are there for us no matter what. And some of us are not. Sharing a heart connection can be deeper than the connections we feel with some of our own biological family.
Many of us find ourselves choosing our “family” – meeting people along the way we feel instant connections with, people we fall in love with, friendships that deepen over the years, through the good and the bad, supporting and loving one another, adding layers and layers of shared experience creating bonds so strong they go beyond blood.
Maybe we partner or marry, and create our own families, blended, extended, etc. But in the eyes of the law, if you are not related by blood or married or legally adopted, you are not considered “next-of-kin.” Even if the family you’ve created has a relationship that runs deep between a man and a woman and her child from a previous marriage.
He became her step-father, teaching her and cheering her on as she grew up and found her passions. Her talents bloomed, fostered by his and her mother’s love. He parented her with a devotion never experienced with her biological father. And he and her mother may have been married at one time and may have divorced but remained close through all these years. When he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, her mother said, without hesitation, I will care for you and be there for you until the end. And she was. She and her daughter were his chosen family.
So who’s to say what the definition of family is?
Here’s what I think: we have a family we’re born into – but we also have a family we create. By choice. Our “family” can be a blend of blood and choice. Along with relatives I love dearly, I am so very grateful for the cherished people who have become my family as I’ve lived, loved, laughed, and lost. We may not be related by blood, but we are “related” by a strong and loving heart connection. Love is what connects us. Love is what makes a family.
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.