I love getting mail in my dcwidow inbox. I hear from all sorts of people, including many widows in all sorts of situations. I try and answer all of them, and every once in awhile, I can offer a bit of advice. I mean, I have no training in mental health care, but it turns out that I’ve learned a bit from just walking the planet as a widow for 4 1/2 years.
In any case, I recently got an email from a woman who had a somewhat similar story to mine. Her first husband, Doug, died when her son Aaron was just 2 months old. After a number of years, she found love again. In her email, she had some questions that struck me as important to answer. She’s letting me reprint our exchange, which I’ve edited (and changed names) for privacy:
I was remarried in 2020 to a wonderful man, Allan. He is remarkable and I’m guessing shares many of the qualities Chris does (congratulations on your marriage, by the way! love after loss isn’t for the faint of heart!). We’ve recently been discussing adoption for my son Aaron and our lawyer has written up the paperwork. I called Social Security to see if Aaron would lose his benefits if he was adopted by Allan, but they never called me back. Any idea how that works? Are your kids still able to receive their benefits until the age of 18 or did adoption change that? I’ve asked fellow widows in FB groups but haven’t had a clear answer. I hate even asking but I’m hoping for all the grace.
I’ve also been wondering about last names…I’m debating changing mine to my now husband’s (Murphy) and moving Smith (my first husband’s name) to my middle name. We just had a baby in January and his last name is Murphy, but my son Aaron is a Smith and I think I’ll always keep it Smith to honor Doug and our family. What are your thoughts on family names? Have you and Chris talked about it? I’m just wrestling with it all and would love to hear what you think.
Here’s what I wrote back:
So, I think there are two parts to this question – the logistics (what does the law/rules say?) and the meaning behind it all. So first, the logistics.
Even after adoption, underage children keep their Social Security benefits until they are 18 and graduate high school (there’s weird rules around what happens if they graduate at age 17, but the basic answer is that they get Social Security until 18.) We made sure to clarify this with our adoption attorney first, though we would have gone ahead with the adoption either way. But I completely understand widows who want to (or have to) make a different choice. Sometimes that Social Security money is the difference between paying the rent or getting evicted, and that’s not to be downplayed.
When adoption happens, your husband Allan will have his name on your son Aaron’s birth certificate, and your late husband Doug’s name will be removed. I wrote about this in a blog post, but suffice to say, it felt a little weird. But is just the way it is.
As for names – our oldest child Claire is now 13, and she really wanted to keep her late father’s last name. The boys didn’t care. (Actually, hilariously, our youngest son Tommy wanted to change his name to a Naruto character. We told him that when we said that he could, “change his name” he didn’t have unlimited options!) We decided to keep them all Brimley (Shawn’s last name) and I decided to change my name to Hale (Chris’s last name) and keep Brimley as my middle name. We tell people we are the “Brimley-Hale” family, which usually means the mom kept her maiden name and the kids have the dad’s name but….we are just a different version of that. Sometimes I have to explain it, but mostly, people just roll with it because we roll with it.
The reason I wanted to change my name was because I felt like symbolically, it would be an important marker for me. Chris didn’t care – he just wanted to get married! But, again – for me – I felt like I wanted a fresh start with Chris, and keeping Shawn’s name wouldn’t do that for me. (There were certainly times when I thought that I should have just stuck with my maiden name for my whole life! Or maybe even changed back to my maiden name. I do know widows who have done that. Nora McInerny comes to mind, specifically.) But really, it’s such an individual decision. Changing my name didn’t make me forget Shawn. Not changing my name wouldn’t have made me love Chris any less. Names are symbols, and they matter, but they don’t change the love.
I do think the age of the kids matters when you’re thinking about name changes. Our kids (at least two of them) are old enough to have opinions about a decision like this. For little kids, you have to make the decision for them. But we also didn’t want to burden our kids or make them feel pressured in any way. So we had to tread carefully, and we told them that ultimately it would be our decision as their parents. Because Claire had expressed such a strong preference to stay Brimley, that’s what we went with for all three kids. We did tell our kids that when they turn 18 (which isn’t far away for Claire!) they can then decide if they want to also add/change to Hale. If they never do, that’s fine. But until then, they’ll stay Brimley, just for ease and also to get through the tumultuous teen years without needing to add yet another thing to debate!
There was more in my email, of course, but this was the meat of what I said. Are there other ways to deal adoption specifics? Definitely. What I’ve found is that the debate is often best had in your own household (or with just one or two trusted friends or family members) and then you can make an announcement about your decision. We didn’t need 100 opinions, and our kids definitely didn’t need other people debating what their names were going to be!
That’s all from “Ask a Widow” today. As usual, I don’t have much that’s definitive. I just have my life experience…one that I hope can help at least one other widow out there.
**This column is merely my point of view and is for informational purposes only. I am not a therapist or medical professional, and thus my thoughts should not be a substitute for advice from these professionals. Please get immediate help if you feel like harming yourself. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.