The first time I heard someone refer to me as a single parent, I balked at their words. Single? Me? I still felt very much married to Greg. 13.5 years of marriage do not disappear instantaneously when someone breathes their last.
In that moment, I didn't feel single, but I did feel like I was alone. So I chose to use the word "solo" instead. I was the only living parent.
Over 2 years have passed since I was first called "single" and that word still feels like it carries meanings that don't fully represent my situation. It's true that my marital status has changed - I have checked the "widowed" box on way too many forms to believe otherwise. The times when I've had to chose between married, divorced or single - with no widow option- I've been forced to chose single. So I get it. I no longer react as strongly to the term as I once did. I've even begun to use the term "single parent" for simplicity's sake in conversations with others.
Yet, I do think there are significant differences between the experience of a single parent and a widowed solo parent.
When we think of single parents, we usually think of parents who have gone through divorce and in many cases share custody of their children. I haven't personally walked through the pain of divorce though I know many people who have. I have seen how devastating divorce can be for everyone involved - the ongoing struggles of shared custody and co-parenting, the conflicted feelings of children. Not to mention the complications of step families and the unresolved hurt and pain that can last for decades. A parent who is single because they have gone through divorce faces challenges and sorrows that I do not personally know and could not possibly understand. Much like widowed parents, parents who are divorced need care, empathy and support. Divorce has its own journey of grief which I in no way want to minimize. That is not my intention.
I simply want to state that widowed parents have different challenges and it's important for people who care for widows to understand what they are.
Widowed parents are solo - they are parenting alone. All alone. Not on some days, but on all days. Not for certain weekends and holidays, but all weekends and holidays.
The widowed parent makes every decision on their own. Provides for their children all alone. Has not a single night when they are home alone.
The widowed parent carries the full weight and responsibility of raising their children on their own shoulders. Even those who receive help from family or friends ultimately carry the responsibility alone. They are forced to fill roles of both a mom and dad - suddenly having to do things that the other parent would naturally do.
The widowed parent also carries the weight of connection with both sides of the family - buying gifts for people their spouse used to make purchases for, finding ways to prioritize his family too even if death has made those relationships difficult or they were difficult to begin with.
The widowed parent doesn't get a day off or even an hour off without having to arrange it (and most likely pay someone money) ahead of time. The widowed parent is always their child's emergency contact and cannot turn their phone off ever in case they are needed.
The widowed parent has to make plans for emergencies that involve friends or neighbors. That line for the second parent on emergency contact on their children's school and activity forms? It is always blank.
The widowed parent knows the fear that something will happen to them, leaving their child orphaned. They weigh the risks of all they do against the possibility that something might happen that would leave their child parentless. At the same time, the widowed parent has to handle their children's heightened fears of loss while somehow modeling trust and bravery - even though the world feels much scarier to the parent too.
The widowed parent has to find mentors for their children of the opposite-sex because there is no father or mother who can naturally fill this roll. The widowed parent has to help a child navigate things they themselves never did and have conversations that they wish their spouse was there for.
The widowed parent has every difficult conversation with their child. No topic can be passed off to the other. Puberty, dating, pornography, drugs and alcohol... the list goes on.
The widowed parent walks into every school function all alone. Saves for college all alone. Celebrates their children's weddings all alone.
I could go on and on but I imagine you get what I'm trying to say. This is why I prefer the word solo. A widowed parent is the only living parent and that is a difficult role to have.
I hope that this gives you insight into the unique challenges widowed parents face and compassion for them when they struggle. May we all care for solo parents in meaningful ways.