Ministering to Single Parents with a Terminal Illness

terminal illnessWe’ve often discussed how stressful it is being a single parent. A lot of ideas have been given about how to minister to single parents and their children. One subject that hasn’t come up is the issue of the possibility of a single parent with a terminal illness or a disability. How can you help a single parent in one of these situations?

Most single parents don’t plan ahead for such a situation. Most of the time they are barely surviving and yet the necessity of them having to face their fear of death or a disability might become a real concern. I know when I was a single parent the possibility was always in the back of my mind,

“What will happen to my kids if something happens to me?”

At the time, I was clueless about what to do. I wish there had been a church or some church leaders close by that could have helped me sort through the legal issues in a situation like this. In my particular case I knew the kids would be able to go and live with their dad, but I hadn’t really thought through much more than that. He lived in another town, and that would have meant a lot of changes for my kids.

Many single parents won’t have the option of the other parent picking up the pieces should a death occur. They might have an ex that is not capable due to mental health issues, addictions such as alcoholism or drugs, incarceration, military enlistment or the possibility they have lost contact with the child’s other parent. The other parent might have a job that keeps him or her out-of-town much of the time.

As a church leader, are you prepared to help a single parent with legal arrangements for their children in case the unexpected happens? Do you have a lawyer or someone in your congregation that might be on standby for such needs or to help a single parent plan for such a circumstance? Do you know what the single parent’s wishes are in case something unexpected happens to them?

Every state is different in their child custody laws and protocols. The first step is to know the custody laws in your state. Become familiar with the law in your particular state.

Other issues to help the single parent think through are the differences in support and custody. Here are some things to think through:

  • The issue of physical custody or who will be the legal guardian? Who will actually have the physical day-to-day care of the child? Perhaps sitting the single parent down beforehand and making up a list of potential guardians would be a good idea.
  • Issues of living arrangements and visitations. Who will be the people the child visits on a regular basis such as extended family? There might be two sets of grandparents who will want the child to come and spend time in their household.
  • Issues of major decisions concerning the child’s welfare. Who will make the decision as to the child’s education? What about medical issues concerning the child? Dental issues? What religion the child will be raised in during the critical growing up years?
  • Issue of child support. Who will financially support the child and the child’s needs in the coming years? If there is a trust fund or a life insurance policy, who will oversee the funds available to the child?

There are many issues to think through. If the single parent develops a terminal illness will you be there to help them talk to their children and explain what is going on and what is going to take place? Will you know how to help smooth the troubled waters for the family? If the single parent develops a disability, will your church family be there to support and help during the initial crisis? What about long-term? What scriptures will you use to help everyone involved turn to the Lord?

I once worked with a single mom who had a four-year-old little girl. This mom developed terminal cancer.

Several of us helped her walk through this time. She made great plans ahead of time. She moved her sister into her house so her daughter would be become used to and familiar with her aunt. She signed over her house and all her worldly goods to her sister. She made up a will and in the will put the aunt in as the legal guardian.

Since the divorce was recent and her and her ex were not getting along, no one in her family considered his feelings during this time. He had remarried right after the divorce went through, and there were hard feelings toward him. However, he was still the little girl’s father. The mother’s family instigated heated arguments. Even when the mom was in the hospital dying, the family was full of hatred for the dad.

When the mom passed away, the dad showed up at the house to pick up his daughter. The police were called. Lawyers were called in. The will was contested. The four-year old saw her aunt, dad and grandparents arguing and fighting. The emergency court order gave the child to the dad. He did allow the four-year old to attend the funeral under the condition that no one was allowed to tell her what happened to her mother.

The mom’s family was not allowed to see the little girl for several years. It was the saddest situation I have observed. I wish I had known then how to help. Eventually the dad and the mom’s family were able to come together for the benefit of the little girl but it took years.

A great article, “Child Custody Following the Death of a Parent” that might help you get started can be found at

For more resources and information on divorce, family disruption and modern families please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Divorce and Modern Family Help Center.

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on April 04, 2014.

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Written by Linda Ranson Jacobs
Linda Ranson Jacobs is one of the forefront leaders in the area of children and divorce. She developed and created the DivorceCare for Kids programs. DC4K is an international program for churches to use to help children of divorced parents find healing within the arms of a loving church family. As a speaker, author, trainer, program developer and child care center owner, Linda has assisted countless families by modeling and acting on the healing love she has found in Jesus Christ. Linda offers support, encouragement and suggestions to help those working with the child of divorce. She serves as DC4K Ambassador ( and can be reached via email at You can find additional articles from Linda on her blog at