Bereaved Parents: When There is No ‘First Day of School’

Mary McGrath

August 14, 2019

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Losing a child at any age is a parent’s worst nightmare. It leaves behind an aching loss for the bereaved parents, often intensified at a time when everyone else is celebrating milestones.

Read this heartfelt advice from one bereaved mother to help other parents when there is no ‘first day of school’.

Missing Milestones as Bereaved Parents

When you mourn the death of an adult – a parent, sibling or friend – you are grieving for the life you had together. When a child dies, you grieve for the life that was ahead of them and all the milestones they will never see.

One of those milestones for bereaved parents is the day their child should be starting school. The first day of school is a very important ritual in the life of a child and a family. It is a day all parents look forward to with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Will my child settle in? Will she make friends? Will he like the teacher? Did I get the right bag? Will the lunch be eaten?

Buying the books, the bag and all the other gear is so exciting and, naturally, your child will look adorable in their new uniform. You’ll join the other parents at the school door and hand your child over to the world. A new adventure begins! You’ll shed a little tear – maybe – but you’ll know your child is in good hands.

But what about the parent whose child isn’t there? For bereaved parents, ‘School Season’ as I like to call it, is full of sadness and longing. The back-to-school ‘buzz’ starts very early, so the dread starts early too. Other parents are excitedly planning their child’s first day. We listen to chats about uniforms, shoes, etc and wish we could join in. If there is another child in the extended family due to start school, and your child has been forgotten, it can be heartbreaking.

Many bereaved parents, especially those living in small towns, have no choice but to drive or walk past the local school every day, and the first day of school in September is no exception. If you have older children already in school, you have no choice but to walk them in. And there they are before you – the new Junior Infant children. But your child isn’t there.

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Advice for Bereaved Parents

bereaved couple 2021 census

If you are a bereaved parent whose child should be starting school, here is some advice from someone who has been there:

  1. Don’t be hard on yourself. The sadness is normal. You’re not going mad and you’re not the only person going through this. Connect with other bereaved parents to talk through what you are feeling. A Little Lifetime Foundation supports parents whose babies die at or around the time of birth. The charity’s support meetings and online discussion forum are available to you to talk about this challenging milestone in your journey.
  2. If you have older children already in the school who have to be dropped in but you just can’t face it, ask a friend or family member to do this for you. It’s okay to take one day off for yourself.
  3. Try to stay away from social media for a few days. It can be hard to see the smiling faces of other children, the same age as your child should be, jumping out at you from your phone. You are not begrudging anybody else their happiness, but it makes you wonder what might have been for your son or daughter.
  4. Make a plan. Think about what you’d like to do. Maybe go for a walk or meet a friend for a cuppa. Or maybe you might prefer just to go to ground for the day and not see anyone.
  5. Create a little ritual for your child. On what would have been my son Xavier’s first day at school, my husband and I both took the day off work. We went to the graveyard and cleaned our son’s headstone and then we went for breakfast. We do this every year now. Having been tied up with books, shoes, schoolbags and all the back to school paraphernalia for our other children, it feels nice to spend a little time making a fuss over our missing son too. Find a ritual that works for you. It could be something as simple as lighting a candle, writing about the day in a journal, going to a special place connected to your child, and so on.

Advice for Family and Friends

If you have a friend or family member whose child should be starting school, here are some thing you can do to help them through it.

  1. Mention that you are thinking of their child and where they should be now. Ask how the bereaved mum or dad is doing. Something that simple really is very meaningful to bereaved parents.
  2. If you have children going to school yourself, please don’t complain about the cost. Your friend would love to be spending that money on their child!
  3. If your friend has older children in the same school as your child, offer to drop their children to school on the first day. They might want this but feel too guilty to ask.
  4. If you are uploading photos of your child’s first day to your own social media, don’t tag a bereaved parent. We know you don’t mean to be hurtful, but we find it very distressing.
  5. Offer to take the mum or dad out for a coffee or a walk on the day. But if they would rather be alone, be understanding about that.

If you are facing into what should be your child’s first day at school, my heart goes out to you. It is a day full of very complex emotions. If you are further along in your journey and missing out on your child going into, for example, 4th class or TY, that is still challenging and you still need support.

Remember that all these sad days tend to be worse in our imagination. The anxiety of the build-up is awful, but these days are usually never as bad as we think. It will be sad, yes, but you will weather it. Most importantly, be kind to yourself and let others be kind to you.

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