Co-parenting with a ghost

Matt DeRienzo
5 min readJun 17, 2021


“Do you think your Mom will come back as a ghost and haunt you?”

My son was 7. His Mom had died a few months earlier. He wore a Darth Vader costume to the funeral and carried a lightsaber.

His friend, in the back seat of our car on the way home from a playdate, didn’t intend for the question to be hurtful. She was just really into the Ghostbusters movies. If my son was bothered by it, he gave no indication.

But I think about it a lot.

From a card my oldest made for me years ago.

We are haunted. By the absence of a mother. By the way in which she died. By what came before it. By the way she parented and co-parented when she was with us. By the way that her influence is frozen in time and by the ages of my kids when the clock stopped. By promises that weren’t kept. By how my kids were influenced (I fear, warped) by her life and by her death. By the muscle memory of how I’m still affected by things she did before they were even born.

Father’s Day isn’t really observed in our home. My kids, now 14 and 11, gave no indication last year that they knew it was happening. And there’s no one around to dutifully remind or goad them into picking up a coffee mug or tie or scratching out a homemade card.

I still have duties associated with Mother’s Day — an annual call to their teachers asking if they’re planning to do anything in class related to the holiday, so I can prepare them, and a request that the mom-less in the class be considered in how it is presented.

But all of the thinking about what it means to be a father as this holiday approaches weighs on me.

My son was an infant and my older child was about 3 years old when we split up. The next six years of “co-parenting” were peaceful but torturous. Most conversations, negotiations over small matters like pickup times and who knew what and when about school field trips, ranged from difficult to hostile, with all of the things we’d grown to resent and hate about each other close to the surface.

It got better when she remarried, but ultimately, that, too, felt like a setup. After the funeral, their Mom’s wife, effectively a third co-parent whom they lived with 50% of the time, wouldn’t see them and hasn’t spoken to them since. Maybe she was protecting her own emotions and well-being, but it’s not an easy thing for kids to understand. Before that, my new status as full-time single Dad and the toll that dealing with and disentangling from their Mom had taken was one of the last nails in the coffin of my own long-term relationship, and the fourth “co-parent” my kids knew exited our lives as well.

My kids’ Mom was found in a motel room outside Hartford, Connecticut, about a year after she broke more than eight years of sobriety and introduced the chaos of alcoholism into their lives. It was about six months after I won full custody. It was about three months after they stopped seeing or hearing from her almost entirely, partly due to my decision that no contact was better than wondering if she was going to call, if she was going to show up, and if her speech would be slurred and behavior erratic. The official cause of death was suicide by combination of alcohol and prescription drugs.

So where did that leave us?

My house in our 50–50 custody days was probably a stereotype. Less strict. Have fun and let loose with Dad and then go back to Mom’s house to confront the regimented list of chores, the punishments for back talk.

I didn’t know how to shift toward balancing out those two extremes. So I leaned into “anything goes.” Of course you can wear a Darth Vader mask and cape to the funeral. I wish I could feel the control and safety of hiding behind the mask of a big and powerful character like that myself. Bedtime is flexible. Let’s fill the cabinets with ALL the favorite snacks. Don’t feel like doing homework tonight? This one time is not going to matter. Want to scream the F word in frustration about a video game? Hey, it’s good training if you ever follow me into the world of newsrooms.

Just spoil these grieving kids until they’re OK.

I’m still doing it. But I feel like it’s catching up with me. My son texted me from upstairs recently to say he’d dropped a bowl of popcorn and didn’t know what to do. He’s almost 12!

It started out as a strategy to overwhelm them and envelop them in love and safety and distractions.

But if I’m being honest, it’s become a function of my own survival. I can’t keep up with work while also paying the bills, scheduling the doctor and therapy appointments, remembering to file my taxes, reading the 5,000 emails I get from the school district each week, meeting the deadlines for camp forms, and actually being present for them as they cross into … gulp … adolescence and adulthood. Both work and home, most days, feel like some horror movie version of the chocolate factory scene from “I Love Lucy.”

I’ve had brief relationships in which I stepped back from women who wanted to play a mother role in my kids’ lives. Whoa, now, what’s this? What gives you the right?

I’ve also been jealous, at times bitterly, of friends who are doing the super-mom thing for their own kids and stepkids. I feel so guilty about not providing my kids with that kind of influence and support in their lives.

I don’t know how to help my oldest get past the stress and compulsion they feel about rescuing and taking care of everyone, the way they took care of their brother those nights when Mom was acting strange. I’m reminded often of a newspaper cartoon I clipped in the days after her death, in which an ER doctor was talking to a family member, and said, “We did almost everything we could. In hindsight, we should have done everything.”

I really don’t have an answer to the gut feeling they might have for the rest of their life that everything could just fall apart, no matter how much they achieve, no matter what level of education, no matter how hard they work at it. Their Mom had been a music and foreign language major at Wellesley, a journalist who understood how nuclear power plants worked and whose reporting in Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey defended people against the abuses of the powerful.

Therapists call my son “Eeyore.” I don’t know how to help him overcome a half-glass-empty outlook that assumes the worst possible outcome for everything.

Another one of his friends, jealous of his relative privilege and how I spoiled him, not long after the “ghost” comment, put it this way: “The only thing bad that’s ever happened to you is that your Mom died!”



Matt DeRienzo

Editor in chief at the Center for Public Integrity. Formerly VP of News and Digital Content for Hearst Connecticut, executive director, LION Publishers.