Children of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley with their dad Chris
Ask A Widow

Ask a Widow: How Do Your Kids Think About Their (Dead) Dad When They Have a (New, Alive) Dad?

Clearly, this blog post has a lot of complicating factors because it took twenty minutes to come up with the title, and it’s still pretty garbled. It could also be about how kids think about their moms, or any other set of parents, of course, but for this post I’m using my own example of two dads. Hopefully readers can follow my thoughts, even though at this point – 3 sentences in – I’ve almost lost my train of thought! Okay, here we go…

Lately, some of my widow friends (both in person and online) have started to date and a few have met someone new. That’s great, right? Yes….and it can also be complicated. What does it mean to fall in love after loss? For some widows, there’s an extra layer: what does this mean for the kids?

Listen, I’m sure there’s a parenting expert out there who knows a lot more about blended families than I do, so if you want researched advice, you should go to that person. But if you’re like me and your “research” on blended families means you put “blended families” into Google, you’ll see that the first hit is about a reality show on TLC about two widowed people who marry each other and then raise their combined ELEVEN kids together (!!) and the second hit is from Focus on the Family and, well, neither of those hits were useful for me. (At all. Especially the latter. But I digress.)

In any case, it can be hard to figure out exactly what to do when a new person comes into your family, not just for the adults, but also for the kids! I mean, I’m sure this is complicated for every blended family, but there’s an added layer when you’re a family that’s already dealt with so much loss. I don’t know this because I read it in a book, or because my therapist told me, or because I had a model in my life demonstrate how to do it. Nope – when Chris became a part of our family, we basically just took our best guesses about what was the right thing to do. Of course, we found that there were issues that came up that we didn’t expect. Sometimes we did it right and sometimes we didn’t.

All this is to say – don’t listen to me if you want to hear about what you or your kids “should” do when you’ve got a new parent in your life. All I can offer is what I’ve experienced with my family.

So, back to the question.

How do your kids think about their dead dad when they have a new, alive dad?

Shawn has been gone for over three and a half years now, and his presence is not as obvious in our lives as it was in the first weeks and months after he died. Tommy doesn’t forget that Shawn is gone anymore (which used to happen frequently) and Austin and Claire aren’t sad like they were in that early time period. But it also means that we talk about him less than we once did. We still remember Shawn when we tell funny stories and his photos are around the house. The kids still talk about him, and I still talk about him, and even Chris talks about him, but it’s not like it once was.

A few months ago, Chris and I were trying to consolidate our accounts with Apple, and figured out a way to get the two of us and the kids all on one account. We figured this would make a lot of things easier with our TV and computers and such. After we did it, I got a one-line alert from Apple that read:

Shawn Brimley has been removed from this family.

What? I went to Chris, who had just received the same message. He felt bad – we weren’t trying to remove Shawn from the family! We just wanted to make it a little easier for Tommy to navigate Roblox!

The kids didn’t get this message, and we didn’t tell them about it. But Chris and I talked about it. What does it mean for our family to have both a dead dad and a new, alive dad?

Because the thing is, the new, alive dad is the one who is out in my yard right now building a treehouse for the kids. He’s the one who did the dishes after dinner and the one who watched every single one of Austin’s baseball games this year. He’s the one helping with homework and breaking up arguments and hugging everyone at night before bed.

But that doesn’t mean that Shawn is gone forever from the kids’ lives. He hasn’t been replaced in the real world, even if he has been replaced on our Apple ID. The kids seem to get this, and for them, it’s easier to navigate than it is for many of the adults I know.

Over the past few months, Claire went from calling Chris by his name to calling him “Dad.” He didn’t ask her to do this, and neither did I, but for some reason she did it. It was a bit out-of-the-blue. We were sitting around after dinner and she turned to Chris and said, “Can I call you Dad? I think I want to. It sounds different but I like it. Dad. Dad. Dad. See, I think I like it!”

Chris told Claire that she could call him anything she wanted. So she tried it out for a while, and eventually, it stuck. The boys switch back and forth, and Chris responds to both “Chris” and “Dad.” He has told them many times that they can call him whatever they want to call him, and it won’t change how much he loves them. He doesn’t make a big deal out of it when they call him “Dad,” though I know he loves to hear them shout to him from across the room, Dad, can you help me with my cleats?

It’s possible that others outside our family might think that since the kids are starting to call Chris, “Dad,” they might be forgetting about their dad Shawn. I know I’ve thought about it. We’ve talked about it as a family, and I’ve tried to emphasize that loving Chris as their dad doesn’t make Shawn not also be their dad. They are getting more love by having their dad Chris in their lives, not less. It’s not a zero-sum game. And while Tommy has no idea what a zero-sum game is, when he asks I just say, “both your dads love you so much, that’s what that means” and he smiles.

So how do your kids think about their dead dad when they have a new, alive dad? Hopefully, they don’t think about him any differently than they did before. They remember the fun things they did with their dad who is not on this earth anymore, and when you tell those stories you remind them about how much that he loved them.

And then you can watch them be loved by their dad who is still on this earth.

It’s more love, not less.


    • M Brimley

      It’s not too personal! This is actually something I’ll be discussing on the blog going forward….stay tuned!

  • Jenny

    In this same boat yet again.
    My boyfriend moved in this summer. My kids ADORE him. I didn’t realize how much they wanted to have an alive Dad, until I heard them claiming him. My son proudly calls my boyfriend his Dad when referring to him with his friends. My daughter said “he’s like a Dad, but not my step dad” whenever my kids say this is makes my heart swell good/bad at the same time.

    The thing is they don’t get it. They don’t know what the really are missing not having their Dad.

    But like you said, this is the guy building the tree house, playing on the trampoline, and tucking them in at night.

    Strange place to be

    • M Brimley

      Thanks so much for sharing. I totally understand how this can feel odd for you. But I’m also so happy that your kids are so loved by the man who also loves you! What a gift.

  • Cathy

    Older kids might have different fears and considerations, such as loss of the remaining parents time, priorities, and their future inheritance. Has anyone gotten resistance to your dating?

    • M Brimley

      Absolutely. I didn’t have this issue, as my kids are still young and they’ve known Chris for a while before he became my boyfriend (and he’s now been living with us for over a year.) But yes, I’m sure there are others who could comment here about the difficulties and push back from their kids.