Dear Prudence: Custody of friends’ children after their tragic death.

Help! Our Friends Died in a Car Crash and Left Us Their Kids.

Help! Our Friends Died in a Car Crash and Left Us Their Kids.

Advice on manners and morals.
April 25 2013 6:15 AM

How Do You Talk to an Angel?

Our friends died in a car crash and left us their kids. What do we tell them?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
Recently, my partner's lifelong best friend and his wife were killed in a car accident, leaving us with custody of both of their children. They are two wonderful girls ages 4 and 2 and we love them dearly and are happy to have them. Both of them are comfortable with us since we spent a great deal of time together before their parents passed away, but we did not have any children of our own and we are taking a crash course in parenting. At this moment, I have two main concerns. One of them is that we are not sure how to help them understand what has happened. My partner and I are confirmed atheists, and although our friends were not seriously religious, they did have some spiritual beliefs and we are not sure whether they would want us to teach their daughters that they've gone to heaven or follow our own instincts to say that even though mom and dad loved them more than anything, they're simply not coming back. Another concern is that before this happened, my partner and I were trying to conceive a child of our own. We've decided it's best to hold off on this for a while because we believe it would be too much for the girls (and us at this moment) to handle after such a loss. How much time does it take for a child to adjust to such a thing? Should we give up on the idea at present?

—Suddenly Parents


Dear Suddenly,
What a crushing loss for these tiny girls to absorb. Amid this tragedy, they are lucky that you and your partner are there to provide them with love and security. Making such guardianship arrangements is a responsibility of parenthood; let this be a spur to those who haven’t done so. As your case illustrates, the best guardians might not be family members, but dear and trusted friends. You now have a large task ahead in becoming an instant family and creating a good life for two confused and frightened little girls. For advice on what you should tell them, and what you should do about expanding your family, I turned to Dr. David Schonfeld, director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children. He said there are four painful but essential truths that have to be conveyed age-appropriately to children who have suffered such a loss: Death is irreversible; all life functions end completely at death; everything alive eventually dies; there are physical reasons someone dies. Schonfeld is co-author of this pamphlet that gives instruction on how to explain these difficult concepts. While acknowledging people’s belief in heaven, he says conveying that to children, especially very young ones, can cause tremendous confusion. It’s difficult to grasp the idea that your parents no longer exist here, but are in some other realm out of reach. Since you and your partner are atheists, and your late friends didn’t have a strong religious tradition, I think you should follow your own instincts about keeping things simple and factual. The girls’ parents knew of your lack of religious belief and still chose you. As the girls grow up, if they develop an interest in religion, you can decide the best way to respect and foster that.

You do not mention that you are under the immediate pressure of a biological clock, so I agree with Schonfeld when he says now is the time to focus on making yourselves a family and seeing the girls through a traumatic transition. After you feel settled into being a unit, for which there isn’t a timetable, you and your partner can explore the question of whether you want to add another child and when. Bear in mind that the loss your girls have suffered is something they will deal with for the long term. It won’t always be the primary focus as it is now for everyone, but it will echo through the years. Schonfeld says that with the help of the strong, loving, committed family you will be, the loss the girls suffered will simply be a part of their understanding of themselves, and will not keep them from forging happy lives.


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Dear Prudence,
In less than a week, my husband's mistress will lose her home. She and her three children will be homeless, as she lost her job several months ago and has no living relatives. My husband ended their affair four months ago, when I found out. But he had promised to help make some sizable mortgage payments to buy her some more time. Now that the affair has ended, we talked about whether or not he should still "honor" those payments. We agreed that, for the sake of our marriage, he should not. I know he feels guilt over the false promise he made, but he seems to feel a lot of shame about his recent behavior in general, which is one of the reasons we are making a go of it. Because there are children involved, we considered doing something. If we cut back on certain luxuries, we could afford to at least buy her a few more months. Do we have an obligation to help this woman? Am I awful for not wanting to help her, knowing she has young kids?

—Heartbroken and Morally Confused

Dear Heartbroken,
So you’re thinking of going without to provide a financial gift to this woman who helped almost wreck your marriage. Maybe she’s a fast enough worker that if you tide her over for a few months she can find another married mark who might pick up her bills. It’s always sad when innocent children are the victims of their parent’s bad judgment and behavior. I wonder if her tale of complete abandonment is wholly true—she has plenty of reason to make herself seem as desperate as possible, and you have evidence she’s no paragon of honesty. But if you cast your gaze over our economic landscape, you will find endless, desperate families and you simply know that you can’t bail them all out. Let’s say you give her a few months’ reprieve. I assume you aren’t going to have them move in when at the end of that time she’s still jobless and underwater with her mortgage. I’m afraid she needs to start making plans and turn to the social service agencies your tax dollars are funding and which are there to keep such families from finding themselves on the street. I understand your husband feels shame, but his enlightenment about the error of his ways came about because you caught him cheating. Without your discovery, he would have continued seeing this woman, and you would have started seeing a substantial diminution of your financial reserves. I hope your husband recognizes what a kind, compassionate wife he has in you. I hope you are seeing what you have in him equally clearly.