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Home Family Parenting Advice Helping from Afar—Good Parenting

Helping from Afar—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

It’s always sad when a child loses a parent, but in this case the family is kind of close. My teen-age daughter and I want to help the mom and the kids, but aren’t sure what our roles should be. We’ve known the kids since they were babies and consider them part of our extended family even though there’s no blood relationship.

It’s Complicated

Dear I.C.,

Family is family. The question is what help do they need? The bereaved parent will be relying on her support network as well as community resources
uniquely suited to her situation. This varies according to her emotional, financial, and other needs. The most important need for children in any adverse situation is to be able to count on their parent – or the parent’s network – to maintain, re-establish, or re-create the family’s every
day routines.

Clean Clothes, Hot Meals

Early on it’s difficult to put one foot in front of the other. This perspective is well-expressed by Tom Hanks’s character in Sleepless in Seattle (written by Nora Ephron): “I’m gonna get out of bed every morning … breathe in and out all day long. Then after a while, I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out. And then after a while, I won’t
have to think about how I had it great and perfect for a while.”

Helping children through an ordinary bedtime routine may take all the energy a grieving widow has, and then some. Think of things you can do to reduce her parenting workload. While it may be too intrusive of you to offer to do the family’s laundry, now might be a great time to gift the children with some new clothes. If there is someone closer to Mom than you are, find out from
that person what sizes and items are needed. Second-hand items are very inexpensive at yard sales and consignment shops. Or you may know a family that has children that have outgrown clothing in the appropriate sizes.

This same confidant (or you) can find out if a Meal Train  has been organized. This is a group effort to coordinate and provide meals to a family in immediate need for a short period of time. It may be dinners for two weeks with enough to serve as leftovers for the next day’s lunches. Contributions should take into account any food allergies or sensitivities as well as preferences. As time goes on, you and your daughter might continue with a weekly or monthly drop off, with advance notice, of course. Your contribution of foods you know the children enjoy will be appreciated by all.


A child’s second most important social sphere outside the family is school. Unfortunately, this year has been unlike no other. The Covid-19 pandemic has parents weighing all the pros and cons between safer-at-home versus time-in-the-classroom. For a child who has just lost a parent, the daily routines of in-person school provide an oasis from the chaos and depression that may be
going on at home.

Even though friends and teachers are masked and student desks are far apart, the school environment provides daily stability. On the other hand, virtual schooling keeps mom and kids together, weathering life’s storms as a team. They may prefer to keep school within the comfort of home and each other for the time being.

One role that can be played by someone outside the immediate family is that of homework helper or tutor. For younger children, you and your daughter can set up regular times to be Reading Buddies to share picture books to build the children’s enjoyment of reading. Homework can be a challenge for any student, from kindergarten on, so you might want to let the mom know when you’re regularly available for this, if that’s something you and or your daughter can do.

Play Time

As with school, the pandemic has upended children’s lives regarding time with friends. What about a (Coronavirus Safe) Play Date Train? By now, many families have figured out how to get playmates together through technology and or outdoor activities. If no one has stepped up to initiate a regular schedule of get togethers with the children on behalf of the new widow, see if
you can coordinate, or at least suggest to the right person, Zoom times or masked playground meet-ups with the families of the kids’ friends.

Teens need to hang out with friends, too. Does your daughter have a friend with siblings close in age to the youngsters? They could all meet at the playground or assemble for a virtually shared movie screening using phones, screens, chat box features, etc. When she’s not busy with her own friends, your daughter can serve as a slightly older playmate according to everyone’s social distancing comfort. A game of tic-tac-toe, or a shared doodle on the whiteboard of Zoom can help to keep a friendship (based on honorary kinship) going when getting together in person isn’t possible.

Grief Work

The above suggestions are to add normalcy to the children’s lives and to fill in gaps for a suddenly single mother. Every family needs social connections to add to their joys and to share the weight of their sorrows. You are helping at this time, and long into the future, just being a steady part of their lives.
The children’s school has resources that the family can avail themselves of to specifically address the grieving process. Mom can tap into the services of a guidance counselor, school psychologist, or social worker to help the children. Appointments can be virtual. School personnel can also direct the mom to resources in the community for herself and the family.

Services and support groups can also be found through their medical provider(s) or religious organization. Check if steps have been taken to access professional help and or self-help for grief work, and if not, find out what help is needed – offer to make a phone call, to do an online search, or to
babysit during mom’s appointments / meetings. Your connection to this family may be complicated. Helping them out during this difficult time and beyond doesn’t have to be.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Register for upcoming parenting workshops on Zoom:
March 23 “The 3 Reasons for Rules”
April 3 “The Skin You Live In – Antiracism as a Family”
April 6 “I Had it First! – Teaching Conflict Resolution”

Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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