Coping with loss of a partner and co-parent

It was really difficult getting used to the change when we split up at first. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in what’s going on between the parents, but you have to push that aside and focus on what’s best for your kid. If you’re going to work together to share the parenting, that means you have to split the special times like Christmas as well as the day-to-day stuff.’

Bereavement is physically and emotionally exhausting. You don’t have to push yourself beyond what you feel able to do. You don’t have to put on a brave face and always be strong for your children as you’re sharing the grief together. I later realised that, by not showing how upset I was, that I wasn’t giving them the chance to cry and to be upset about how they were feeling.

Most people experience grief when they lose something or someone important to them. If these feelings are affecting your life, there are ideas on our health and wellbeing pages which may help.

Being a single parent may be something that’s been forced upon you, rather than a choice, and that’s a big change in your life. There’s a lot to face and to learn.

But it may not be all bad. Sometimes good things come out of endings. For example, you, your children, or both may have felt anxious because of uncertainty, conflict or even abuse in their home.

If your partner has died

The death of a partner and co-parent can be one of the hardest things to deal with. Not only do you have your own feelings of loss, there are your children’s too, as well as realising that you are now a ‘single parent’.

Over time, feelings usually become less intense, but you can’t predict when it will happen, or force it to come sooner. There’s no set timetable for starting to feel better. But eventually most people feel able to cope with their lives, whilst remembering those who have died.

It’s important that you have support so that you can also support your children. This booklet from Cruse Bereavement Care on understanding grief may help.

It’s helpful to talk about your feelings with your children because it gives them permission to talk about theirs.

There are some practical things you’ll need to think about straight away and you may need advice about social security, childcare, housing or your rights at work. See our main support and advice pages for information that might help. Remember you can call or chat online to our Lone Parent Helpline which can advise you on these kinds of issues.

The effects of a partner’s death can last a very long time, and the death of a parent will affect your children for life. This is natural.

  • Make it a priority to be with your children after the death of their other parent. Talk to your employer to see if they will offer extra time off (compassionate leave).
  • There may be financial issues for you in the short and long-term. Try to make sure you get all the help you can for you and your family. Citizens Advice can help with this.
  • Think about bereavement counselling. There are free services listed in the links below.

Useful links

  • Cruse Bereavement Care has resources for parents to help children of different ages cope with bereavement. There’s information on what you can do to help a child or young person who is grieving, how to understand the concept of loss in children and young people of different ages, and how to recognise potentially complicated grief.
  • This NHS site has information about children and bereavement
  • Winston’s Wish offers support for children after the death of a parent or sibling. It runs a helpline, online chat and email, and has online information to help you with speaking to children about death and grief, and activities to help them understand and talk about their feelings.
  • If a bereavement is linked to alcohol or drugs, Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs has a helpline and can put you in touch with a counsellor in your area.
  • If your partner or another family member has taken their own life or died as a result of violence, Families Affected by Murder and Suicide (FAMS) might be able to help you. Its helpline is open every day. There’s also a befriender service and support with mental health.

If you and your partner have separated

  • If you have recently separated from your partner and are now a single parent, it’s important to know what your first steps might be. Check our advice pages on separating for information about this.
  • While practical arrangements and your children’s wellbeing may be huge concerns during separation, getting support for yourself is just as important.
  • Even if it’s something that you’ve chosen, separating from someone who you may have loved, and who you have been parenting a child with, is a massive change and can be very distressing. Our wellbeing pages have useful tips for self-care and ideas if you’re not sleeping well or finding it hard to cope.
  • If you didn’t choose to separate, you may have strong feelings of rejection and shame. This is natural. Family breakdown is distressing, and can be very frightening, and you will likely be worrying about your children too. Relationships Scotland has advice on its website about different aspects of separation and divorce including practical and emotional issues.
  • In this video from Gingerbread, a single parent talks about how she coped with separation.
  • Be prepared to be strong for your children. When parents separate, children can feel insecure because it’s such a big change. It helps children if you and your partner can put aside any differences and agree on how to make their lives as stable as possible.
  • Sharing parenting responsibilities with your child’s other parent can be difficult. You may each have a different style of parenting or different ideas about where your child should spend their time. The Scottish Government has a Parenting Plan to support separated parents to discuss and plan practical arrangements for their children.
  • Every family, of all types, has ups and downs. Try not to compare yourself to others. Remind yourself that you are doing a great job looking after your children. No parent gets it right all of the time, but make sure that you see that there are things you’ve done really well and give yourself a pat on the back.
  • Try making a list of all the things you have done in the last week. You may be surprised at what you have achieved.

Useful links

  • One Parent Families Scotland has a guide to separation which includes practical issues, including welfare benefits and legal services. Our Lone Parent Helpline offers advice and support.
  • Relationships Scotland has ‘parenting apart’ materials for children, young people and parents, and offers courses and mediation for parents wanting support. It also runs child contact centres which can be used when it is too difficult for both parents to come into contact with each other at ‘handover’ times.
  • If your ex-partner and co-parent has issues around alcohol and drugs, you and your children might benefit from support from Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs (SFAD). You can call its helpline, talk to families with similar experiences in the message board, or find one-to-one and group support services near you.
  • If your child’s other parent is in prison, Families Outside offers a helpline, one-to-one support, group work and peer support.

If you’ve experienced domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is when one partner (or ex-partner) tries to control the other. It can take many forms. Scottish Women’s Aid has more information on what domestic abuse is, including videos which explain ‘coercive control’.

Domestic abuse is a common cause of relationship breakdown, and it can continue for a long time after separation. This can create particular issues around child contact.

If this is what’s happening to you, our advice on separating will not apply in the same way.

Remember that your and your children’s safety are the most important things to consider. Leaving can be a time of increased risk to the partner who is being abused, and to their children.

Whether you’re in a crisis, need practical advice, or want to talk to someone about past experience of abuse, help is available, See the links below for some suggestions.

Useful links

  • If it’s an emergency phone the police on 999.
  • If it’s not an emergency, call the police on 101. The police can put you in touch with a domestic abuse liaison officer. Police Scotland has helpful information about domestic abuse on its website.
  • Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is for anyone of any gender affected by domestic abuse. It’s a good starting point. It’s open 24 hours for phone, webchat and email support, and there’s a translation service to speak to you in your preferred language.
  • The Men’s Advice Line is for men experiencing domestic abuse. 
  • Scottish Women’s Aid has useful info on its website and links to local Women’s Aid groups around Scotland. Local Women’s Aid groups have specialist children’s workers, as well as support workers for women.
  • If you’re from a Black, Minority Ethnic (BME) community Shakti Women’s Aid in Edinburgh or Hemat Gryffe Women’s Aid in Glasgow can also help.
  • Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre runs a helpline and has useful information and resources on its website.
  • The Scottish Women’s Rights Centre offers free and confidential legal advice, advocacy support and representation to women who have experienced abuse or violence.
  • There are support and advice services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The LGBT Domestic Abuse website has information, phone numbers and links to organisations that can help.
  • Anyone aged 13 and over who has been affected by any form of sexual violence can contact the Rape Crisis Scotland Helpline. Rape Crisis Scotland also has links to local rape crisis centres.
  • The Disclosure Scheme for Domestic Abuse Scotland allows people to ask the police if their partner, or the partner of someone they know, has a criminal record related to domestic abuse.
  • For practical advice on issues like child contact and the legal options available to you, our advice and information workers can help. You can contact us on our Lone Parent Helpline, live webchat or email.

Speaking to your children about divorce and separation

Find out more on our main advice page on speaking to your children about divorce and separation.

Some tips are:

  • Think about what you will say, how you will say it, and when and where. If you and your ex-partner are on the same page, that’s even better.
  • Think about what your children are likely to ask, so you can prepare your answers. 
  • Encourage them to share any questions or worries. Answer their questions and listen to how they’re feeling. Take what they’re telling you seriously rather than dismissing them or telling them not to worry.
  • Reassure your children that the separation is not their fault. This is an adult situation and one that you both, as parents, will manage and cope with.
  • Give a brief and truthful reason for the separation. Avoid blaming the other parent. Give enough detail, but not too much, and make sure it’s suitable for their age. If children don’t have a reason, or don’t believe your reason, they will make up their own. They may end up blaming themselves for the separation. This is something you want to avoid.
  • Reassure your children that you and your partner are both OK, and that if you need support, you will get this from your friends/family/counsellor. It’s good for children to know that they do not have to look after you and they are not responsible for you: you are the adult and the parent. 
  • Say what you feel about the separation. This will help your children say what they feel. Let them know that you can cope with your own feelings and emotions, and that you can help them cope with theirs.
  • Tell them clearly about changes that will affect them, such as school, activities, clubs they go to, where they will live, and so on. Children tend to worry about such changes. If you don’t know, explain that you will sort these things out when you can, and that you will involve them in decisions.
  • Let your children know that, even though you and your partner will be living separately, you want the family to adjust to the changes together where possible.
  • Involve them in planning when they will spend time with each parent and extended family (if relevant and safe). Think about now but also think about the future – birthdays, family occasions and so on.
  • Ask them if they would like you to speak to others on their behalf such as their guidance teacher, class teacher, parents of friends and so on. They may not want anyone to know, but you may have to speak to some people and prepare the ground for them, depending on their age and stage.
  • Avoid criticising your partner in front of the children. It won’t do you or your children any good in the long run – and remember this is for the long run.
  • If you’re finding things difficult, and are very angry and upset at your partner, find someone to speak to about this: not your children. This could be a friend or a professional. Avoid sharing information that your children don’t need to know, for example intimate details about your relationship with your partner or someone else.
  • Your children will need time to think about things and about what they want to know. Keep on talking as time goes on and as you all adjust. Their feelings and questions are not a one-off. They will change as they speak to friends, grow older and experience more of life.

Useful links