Drawing of family by son of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley

Relationship to Student

The thing about the start of school is that it’s filled with a million “get to know you” questionnaires and projects. What’s your favorite color? Do you prefer to do math or read a book? What TV shows do you watch? Who is in your family?

Oh, yes, there’s always that last one. It’s an important one, and as a teacher, I don’t shy away from it either. It’s vital to understanding more about the student in front of you.

And yet, I now know what a bomb it can feel like to answer that question, especially if all of the other kids are making posters with a mom, a dad, 2.5 kids and a dog. (I’d like to note here that plenty of other kids have families that are different from that example, but to a kid (and her single mom) it can seem like everyone else’s families are all the same except your own. Maybe because you just become more sensitive to it?)

I’ve appreciated that at my kids’ schools, there has been a focus on events and projects about “family” over things like “donuts with dads” or some other horror show that many widows I know have to endure with their kids. (No, it is not the same to send an uncle to an event like this, because all of the other kids know he’s not your dad. I hear that all the time and it’s just insane. Please, schools, just stop.) But even with this understanding, my kids still have to bring in photos of our family every year, or talk about our family in some way. I like it, honestly, because I think it makes my kids proud of who we’ve been throughout the past 3 years.

But it’s also complicated, especially for Claire. As she got into older elementary school, she wondered if she should include Grandpa Tom, since he lived with us, or her dead father, since he’d always be her dad. I always told her that it was fine to include anyone she wanted to include, but again, she knew that most kids at her school wouldn’t be including a grandparent or a dead parent. I can’t actually remember what she decided to do for 4th and 5th grade, but I do remember the discussion that we had about how she was conceptualizing family.

Things are different this year, but no less complicated. Chris is a daily presence in the kids’ lives, but he is not their legal guardian, so we’ve already encountered some interesting discussions as we try and get him looped into emails and other communication with the kids’ schools. It’s easier with the elementary school, because they know my family. But Claire is in middle school now, and that means no one knows much about us. And protocol dictates that communication only goes out to official channels (i.e. me) until I make that change. It’s been fairly easy to do, and yet, when those forms come out, they can give us pause.

After Chris’s name, many of the forms ask, “relationship to student?” which is a bit tricky to answer. “Mother’s partner” doesn’t fully cover it, and “father” isn’t quite the answer either. We decided on “parent.” Because isn’t that what he’s doing if he wants school emails?

For the kids, they face this same dilemma. What do you say when other people, especially teachers, ask about your family?

What we’ve found is that the best policy is actually the most straightforward one. Chris is a member of our family. What’s his title?


That’s it! “Is he your dad?” kids and teachers have asked. Sometimes, Claire will give a longer answer about how Chris is her mom’s boyfriend but he is a parent to her.

But with the boys, it’s just become a straightforward thing. On his “family” poster, Austin wrote, “my family is me, my sister, my brother, my mom and Chris.”

Tommy drew a picture. I simply gave him paper and asked him to draw our family. In the image, I stand on the left (and it looks like I have a black eye which seems accurate for my emotions during the first week of school). In the middle stand my three kids. And on the right, there’s Chris. Each of us are labeled. I am “mom” and Chris is “Chris.”

“This is my family!” Tommy said on Zoom, pointing out each of us in turn: Mom, Austin, Tommy, Claire and Chris.

And really, that’s all the labeling any of us need.


  • Shannon

    I knew a kid growing up who referred to his mom’s partner as “my [name].” For example, he’d say, “My mom and my Garrett are coming to my football game.” In retrospect, it’s such a kid-like solution to finding a title for a person in this role — he just added the possessive to his name, and never thought about it again. 😊

  • Laurelie

    This post made me smile though I’m sure that wasn’t the likely reaction you were going for. My father died a month before I was born (similar to Shawn, he was diagnosed with colon cancer in October and died at the end of December). My mother was a single mother until I was three, when Al entered into our life. In the early 80’s, there wasn’t a big concept of a different family other than Mom, Dad, children, but we forged ahead. My mother and Al never even married, which would have legally given him the title of step-dad. Al simply became “my pal Al” – I would draw my mother, my dog, myself and then “my pal Al”. Eventually, in adulthood I started to refer to him as my “bonus dad”, which is what he was, but he was always “Al” to me. After his passing in 2018 I made reference to “My Pal Al” in his eulogy which caused everyone to laugh reminding them of the moniker that I clung to for most of my youth.

    • M Brimley

      “My pal Al” – I love this so much. It’s beautiful and shows how kids can adapt to so much when they feel loved.

  • Kate

    Do you inform your children’s teachers that their father has died? I am very uncomfortable with this, but it’s probably important to share.

    • M Brimley

      Yes. I write the teachers every year, even though those at my kids’ elementary school already know. But I made sure to tell the teachers at Claire’s school as well. I think everyone has a different perspective, and I don’t think there’s a “right” way to do it, but I just want it out there. I know that as a teacher, it’s important for me to know information like this about my students so I can be thoughtful in how I approach tough subjects. My kids’ teachers have been wonderful at teaching and counseling my kids through so much.

  • Jeff Tayloe

    I was a Hospice counselor with the duty to run groups for children in the schools who had family members die. We operated in small groups and the drawing was integral in the formation of trust in the group. Having a common/shared trait in the family was the starting point. We did not introduce the family until the end of the group and the children were invited to make a new family drawing at the end. They almost always included the family member who died in heaven, in the clouds, with a halo,… I loved the growth of these groups both in each individual child and in the group coming together for each other.

    That being said, we were in a protected environment. Makes the classroom experience easier on the child if they process their emotions in a protected environment before having to share them in an open environment.

    JT MS Ed Child and Adolescent Counseling and Development.

    Wilmington, NC

    • M Brimley

      I love this. And yes, protected groups are a good place to start. Not everyone has access to them, but I will say that my kids’ school did a great job of creating these spaces for my children via the counselors. I really appreciated that.

  • K

    Great post! Those school forms were harrowing in the beginning. Ours were partly paperwork and partly digital where you could just make changes to existing filled out information. It was the WORST taking my husband’s name off the page after he died and even more worse emailing PTO moms and telling them to take his name off the directory sent out to all of the parents. Then once you complete the forms and get the kids in school, here comes all of the emails and papers home on All Pro Dads meetings. Our school bus drop off door was located so that kids not attending APD had to walk by all of these weekly morning meetings with Dad’s and their kids just to get to their classroom. (the breakfast was usually still going on/wrapping up with lots of laughter, fun and hugs for the attendees) It was unfortunate to say the least for my son and any other kids not attending for many different reasons. The school was not very responsive, either. I did start to go get doughnuts every day there was an All Pro Dads Days so my son and I had doughnuts at home which he very much liked and eventually the program decided to start allowing moms or any caregiver to come. (duh!)

    Another important item I did based upon this NPR story, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/13/376720559/grieving-in-the-classroom, was to take on telling my kid’s class what had happened over the summer so my kids didn’t have to. The teachers were helpful but I do recall I ended up just bursting into tears once I made it back to my car. Keep up the great writing Marjorie!

      • k

        Your Tommy’s teacher did such a great thing by making an inclusive celebration instead of separate Mother’s and Father’s Day. I have been consistently telling my kid’s teachers in an email what my kids have been through losing their dad to cancer. While I think it has helped, I can only see the evidence in a big picture way. Only a few circumstances have occurred where the teacher feels completely comfortable in talking to me about what is going on. They are usually overwhelmed with all they do for the whole class to really be able to focus on one kid consistently and I completely understand.

        Keep up the great posts! You are documenting so well what many have gone through, are going through, and unfortunately, what many will go through in the future. This will be a great resource.

        • M Brimley

          Thanks for reading! And yes, I totally understand how hard it is to accommodate everyone as a teacher….and yet, how important it is as well. I’m always SO GRATEFUL for teachers who are able to do this!

  • Rachel

    I love this. My partner’s name is Tom and, totally unprompted and on her own, my daughter started calling him “Tother” (rhymes with mother), I guess bc her dad will always be Daddy to her but she thought Tom needed a special, “parent” name too. I’m Mom or Mama to her but she gets a kick out of calling us Mother and Tother sometimes. Tom even got a “World’s Best Tother” shirt for his birthday this year 😂