When people in our life are struggling, it is natural for us to want to help them. We want to ease their burden, take away their pain, and make everything better. We want them to feel better, and we hope we’ll feel better if we can somehow make them feel better. Sometimes we feel this way about our single parent friends.
When I was pregnant with my youngest and for a while after he was born, my husband traveled a lot for work. He would leave early Monday morning and return late on Friday. During those months, I remember thinking how difficult it must be to be a single parent, and I was fully aware of how much better off my situation was having my husband home on weekends and being only a phone call away the rest of the time. My desire to have a break from the kids, the need to take on additional tasks I wasn’t used to doing, and the frustration of dealing with pregnancy and post-partum hormones alone was a lot to handle. Single parents, on the other hand, are dealing with challenges far beyond those I faced.
I reached out to several single parent friends and asked them to share with me a little about their stories. I asked about what things people did that helped, what would they have liked people to do, and even what kinds of things they found to be hurtful or unhelpful. I also reflected on the ways people helped our family this year through a family crisis, though completely different circumstances. I hope you will be able to take away from this some ways you can practically help single parents.
At the point of crisis:
Whether this person is experiencing a divorce or the death of their spouse or partner, there may be a “moment” of crisis or a season of crisis. Some deaths are long and expected and some divorces come about after a shocking moment of discovered secrets. There is no “normal” and there are no two people who will handle this situation the same. While this article is looking at single parents, childless couples separated by death or divorce might very well benefit from similar care.
At the point of initial crisis, the people involved are in crisis. This might seem too obvious to state, but keep this in mind. Think about everything you have read about a trauma victim. This might very well be the case for a person experiencing a sudden loss. Their thinking might be clouded. They are likely thinking about every possible way in which their life and the lives of their children will now be different. They might be worried about immediate things like finding a life insurance policy or long term things like, “Who will walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding?” even if that daughter is only a toddler. Don’t judge them in their grief. Sit with them, listen and cry with them. There might be a time to gently direct this person towards more immediate needs. “May I go with you to the funeral home (or lawyer’s office) to help you make some decisions?” However, this can likely wait for a while and it should come from a place of genuine relationship with this person.
What can you do to help that doesn’t require them to make more decisions? Can you make a dinner? And when you make a dinner, make it simple, microwavable, and easy to eat without taking a ton of things out of the fridge. Is it right after Easter? Then don’t make them ham. Everyone else will. They will be eating a lot of pasta as people drop things off. Surprise them with something different. Can it be frozen for later? Can you buy groceries, in particular the kind that can be eaten without much prep like fruit, don’t require refrigeration (the fridge might be full), or can it be dropped in bags for school lunches. Gift cards for a take-out place might also be great. They keep until after all the immediate help has passed and the family is now fending for themselves as they put their life back together again. That process might take months or years, and food tends to show up for a week or two. Maybe you could bring a dinner a month later. Maybe you could fill up the kids’ school lunch accounts so it’s one less thing to do in the morning.
What else can you do? Can you mow their lawn? Can you cover their carpool duties? Can you take on tasks that they might need done like laundry, cleaning, or a school committee task they were already working on? Don’t ask vague questions like, “What can I do?” That requires more decision making and many people who really need help are inclined to initially respond with, “Nothing,” even if they really need the help. People, in general, don’t like to receive help. Instead, say things like, “I’m coming over to mow your lawn. I’ll be there at 10:00 unless that’s a problem.” This gives them the chance to say no if they really don’t want you to do that, but is worded like a gift rather than favor. Please be understanding if the person says no. Maybe they don’t want the particular thing you are offering. Maybe their wife always did the laundry a certain way and they feel the need to personally do it, or seeing someone who isn’t their husband mowing the law is just too much for them to handle right now. Grief, be it through death or divorce, has triggers that you may not understand right now. Heck, they don’t fully understand, and they are going through it.
When my father passed away, hundreds of people showed up at his funeral, cards and meals arrived in droves, and then a week or two passed and the rest of the world went back to normal for everyone else. Not for us. Years later my mom recalled one of my father’s close work colleagues stopping by every six months or so for several years, just to check on her when he was in the area. It meant so much to my mother to know that he wasn’t forgotten. A note, a call, or anything to let the person know that you’re thinking about them months and even years later can be a comfort. Those things you did back at the time of the crisis, those things are still needed. Who wouldn’t love to come home and find chocolate chip cookies sitting on their front porch? These single parents going it alone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, they could use a little love, a little encouragement, and some cookies.
In part 2 we’ll look more at how to help single parents over the long haul.
A big thank you to the single parents who helped me in writing this piece. I hope I did justice to the stories and advice you shared. I hope the community that came along side you helped you as you faced the impossible and prevailed.