Blended families today come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own challenges and conundrums — but one mom and stepmom near Louisville, Kentucky, faced perhaps a more difficult challenge than most given her family's series of experiences.
Molly Rubesh told Fox News Digital recently about what happened — and how she found a creative outlet for her insights and a way to help others.
"I became a stepmom in 2018 to two little boys," she said. "Then, just a few months after that, their mother died."
The boys' mom, named April, was only 35 years old. The boys were ages 9 and 5 at the time of their mother's death, said Rubesh.
The passing of their mom "was really shocking and really hard," Rubesh said in a phone interview.
She said she found herself now raising two little boys who "were grieving the loss of their mother" while she was also raising her own two biological children from an earlier marriage.
"So we're a blended family with four kids," she said, describing herself and her husband, Grant, and their kids — with two of the children experiencing grief and working through it, she said.
"And that year, one night near Christmastime, as I was putting our littlest to bed — our five-year-old — he asked me, ‘Is heaven farther than the North Pole?’"
She added, "He just wanted to understand, ‘Where’s Mommy?'"
Given the time of year, the children knew that "Santa was coming, and that the elves were coming — so our five-year-old really wanted to understand where his mommy was," said Rubesh. "And at that time, I didn't really have an answer" for his question.
She said she "fumbled around for a bit" about it.
That experience, she said, "stopped me in my tracks."
As she reflected on it, she found herself, just a few years after that, facing the devastating loss of her own father, in the spring of 2022.
"And I felt like a little kid — I felt like a child," she said of the grief that nearly flattened her.
"Losing a parent is a life-altering experience" no matter how old you are, she said. "When the hospice nurse was speaking to me, I just felt like this little girl, this young little girl, who had just lost her dad."
That night, as she was washing her face, she looked in the mirror and recognized suddenly how all of her recent experiences connected.
With a new understanding, Rubesh resigned from her longtime corporate job in medical sales and that summer spent some time "really connecting to the energy and the spirit of my dad, and loving him, remembering him, feeling him in the wind, appreciating the sunset, recognizing the birds. And I just knew then and there that heaven is all around us. The special person we love never leaves our side."
She told her husband she felt a kind of divine intervention.
She wanted to put her thoughts and feelings into a children's book for both her own family and for other people who might be dealing with grief — and who might take comfort from her messages and story.
The title, she said, was going to be exactly what her stepson asked her: "Is Heaven Farther than the North Pole?"
She said "it would be about two little kids who go on a quest to find heaven — and ultimately realize that heaven is all around us and that our special person never leaves our side."
Rubesh's book was published recently by Gatekeeper Press; it's illustrated by Elly Kennec.
Today her stepsons are age 13 and 9.
The boys' mother, she said, "is forever ‘Mommy’ to them, because they were very little" when she passed, said Rubesh.
And now, she said, "the boys have chosen to call me Mom. That's how we decipher it. If we're speaking of her, she's ‘Mommy.’ If it's about me, they call me Mom."
Added Rubesh, "We just blend. For anyone outside looking in, we look like a very normal, happy, thriving family — and it's a perfect mess, if you will."
She said one of her new book's message is that "joy and sadness can co-exist."
Her stepsons, she said, "never have to choose between missing their mommy and wishing she was here — and loving me and loving our kids and our blended family." Rather, she said, "it can be both. We can experience the grief of missing our special person and still enjoy the memory of her."
She and the kids "celebrate her birthday every year. We go out every year for sushi, because she loved sushi. And we get a cake from the bakery — any cake the kids want, even the most elaborate cake they can find."
And the family comes home and "we sing happy birthday to her, and we enjoy the cake. And the message is, 'We don't have to sit here and cry and be sad. We can celebrate her life and her memory, and we've very glad and thankful for her. And it can just be both."
Her husband, Grant, she said, is "thankful that we can still honor her and her memory in our home together. I'm not competing with her. It's OK to have both," she added.
And "I think he's just so appreciative that the boys have a mom today and that all those little touches that a mom brings to their life — it's an everlasting gift."
She said her own two kids are close in age. With their three boys and one girl, "it's a normal sibling arrangement," she said, noting that her ex-husband is an active co-parent in her biological kids' lives, so her own children come and go, while her two stepsons are at home with her and her husband 100% of the time.
Initially, it was very tough, given the arrangements and changes. But the family has come together as a unit.
"It just builds," she said. "And nothing is off the table. We can talk about everything candidly. Yes, some things feel yucky. We can acknowledge that. And yes, my kids had to go through the grief of divorce and wishing their parents were still married and that they didn't have two homes."
At the core, though, is the stability of the life the family has created.
Rubesh acknowledged that, given everything, "I've done a lot of work on my own mental health. This doesn't stop with just a book. There was divorce and grief and more, so it's about working through the hard stuff and finding balance, and seeing things for what they are."
She said that because of the work she's done for her own well-being, "I show up more equipped to help them through their own difficult times. I don't expect them to just work through their own trauma. I've worked through mine, and we can all, as a family, recognize that life is hard sometimes and that it comes with really difficult things — [but] we can be equipped to handle anything that comes our way."
Rubesh continues to help educate others about the resources that are available for others.
The National Alliance for Children's Grief (NACG.org), she said, "is an amazing organization that provides resources across the country, not only for schools but for parents."
The nonprofit headquartered in Texas provides therapy, she said, at "no charge to the family" — and Rubesh said she is donating a percentage of her book's proceeds to the organization.
"I want people to read the book and use it as comfort — but I also recognize that one children's book isn't going to heal the gaping hole in a child's heart that losing a parent or a sibling or someone very close to them brings. So I'm encouraging people to find other resources."
Rubesh plans to write more books, she said, about grief, divorce and other family-based topics on which she feels she can offer guidance and comfort.
Anyone can learn more at MollyRubesh.com. Her book is available now on Amazon.