There used to be a “Staples” back-to-school commercial that made me laugh. It had Moms and Dads with their pouty kids in tow, gleefully dancing and riding shopping carts down the aisles of Staples to the Christmas classic “Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” I admit it was one of my favorite commercials. It was funny. After 9 weeks or so of having children home for the summer, any parent probably has moments, as fall approaches, where they want to sing that tune too. Summer is such a special time for families and ours was no different, but by late August, when camps, books, beach houses, sleep-overs and pool parties had been exhausted, the structure and predictability of the school year and earlier bed times were a welcome change. While stores filled up with school supplies and the night air started to finally cool down, there was an excitement we all felt that would build as the start of school approached. It was bittersweet, for sure.
That was Then.
It all seems like a dream now. Truly, as if I’m watching it in the third person. Through a distant haze. Another life of another Mom that seems familiar to me somehow but couldn’t possibly have been me. Did I actually have that life I am missing so terribly? I divert my eyes from the enormous back-to-school displays as I walk by now, trying to quell the growing swirl of angst in my gut. “I can do this. If I did it last year, I can do it this year.”, I say to myself. How could I have milled around those aisles with 3 different lists in my hands once?
I reluctantly let my eyes drift back up to the displays and I can see the past version of me, handing each tanned boy their list and letting them go find their stuff. “Don’t buy the name brand. Get the Walmart brand, it’s cheaper.”, I’d say. “If you lose this calculator, you’re buying the next one. I’m not kidding.” ” What do the teachers possibly need with all these post-it notes?”
As I pull my eyes back away, I pray silently that I don’t see one of his friends working on their list. “Keep walking… I don’t want to talk to some Mom like everything is fine… pretend like it’s all behind me now… They can’t possibly imagine what this is like…”
Just like I used to, Mom’s are getting sentimental with the start of school. Old kindergarten photos of kids are popping up all over social media. Then and now. “Look how tall! Look how old! Look how grown up! Where did the time go?!’
Yes, where did it go? It was only a moment ago he was here…
In vast contradiction, mother’s of loss will never post another new photo of their child. Every photo we will ever take has been taken. We will recycle them over and over until the day we die, praying nobody forgets.
Our children won’t get taller, bigger or grown up. We won’t be at the beach with our children ever again and there won’t be a then and now photo of our kindergarten child next to his first-day-of high school photo.
For me, he will always be 12. Always. For other Moms like me, their child will always be 5, 10, 23, 2, newborn and so on.
It’s not that we begrudge back-to-school for intact families or “then and now” photos. Not at all. We love them in a nostalgic and somber way. We loved your children when they played with ours. We loved watching them grow and change too. We imagined them growing up together, but now they won’t…
… ours won’t.
Seeing children’s growing faces change shape helps us to imagine what our child might look like now. It’s something we will do forever anyway…
Imagine and wish.
See our children in the ‘what-might-have-been’.
That is why the idea that bereaved parents eventually ‘move on’ or ‘stop thinking about’ their loss is so infuriating and ignorant. We will imagine, wish and grieve our child’s life as it should have unfolded, every day of every week of every year forever.
As one Mom put it so well, “The pain never goes away, we will always live with one foot in each world. The fight is staying in this world.”
Most of us do stay though, straddling our two worlds. The eternal one where our child resides and this world, the one without them.
It’s just so hard at times to watch yours keep going while ours can’t. It’s just so hard to see our child always be the one left out.
The one left behind. Knowing it will never be any different.
This time of year pokes at a particularly grievous part of our wound.
We don’t resent that yours can go on, we’re just heartbroken that ours can’t.
That back-to-school isn’t anymore.
Prayer for bereaved parents struggling with back-to-school season.