When Back-to-School is a Time of Grief

By Rebecca Hensler, Founder of Grief Beyond Belief

Back to school. The words have so many meanings for so many people…

For educators like me, it’s back to the joys and struggles of the school year. For retailers, it’s a season of school-supply and dorm furniture sales. And for most parents of kids between six and seventeen, it is time to take and post those yearly pictures of quickly growing children, tweens and teens shouldering their backpacks and modeling new looks. Even for parents whose children are beyond the K-12 yearly cycle, it’s the time of year to post the comparison then-and-now shots of the first grader and the college junior.

But what about grieving parents? 

What does back-to-school mean for those of us — also like me — whose children never age beyond infancy in their photographs? 

How does a parent navigate the season when back-to-school photos of their child who has died appear in social media memories like a sledgehammer to the heart?

What can we say to comfort a mother when she realizes that her own mother will never see her grandchild’s first-day-of-school photo? 

How does back-to-school feel to the father putting his son on the school bus for the first time and wishing his partner was still alive to share the moment?

How can a parent send their living children off to school with a smile when they are longing for the one no longer with them?

What about the many parents who look at the pictures of their friends’ children thinking, “What would my child have looked like at that age?” and ache that we will never know?

With all the seasons of grief — the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table, the missing child at the holiday gatherings, the bittersweet birthdays and sorrowful death days — the back-to-school season may be the least mentioned and discussed. The pain that back-to-school brings for many of us is often forgotten by those around us. We ourselves may neglect to prepare ourselves — as we do when the holidays approach — and find ourselves blindsided by the pain that a flood of back-to-school photos in our newsfeeds brings.

What can our friends and families do at this time of year to support us?

We grieving parents know that we cannot make the social media back-to-school culture with its memes and new traditions go away. We probably wouldn’t want to, as we can see the joy it brings so many families to be able to share the moment with each other despite geographical distance. So how can our friends help?

  • Consider what your grieving friends are going through and remain aware throughout the year. Try not to use language in your captions that might be triggering of grief like, “I don’t know what I would do without this little guy!”
  • Check in, but be prepared to not receive an answer. It’s enough to say something like, “Just thinking of you and [the name of the loved one who has died]. Let me know if you want to chat, but I’ll totally understand if you don’t reply. Just know I’m sending love.” Do not send prayers unless you know the grieving person shares your beliefs.
  • Don’t expect us to comment or click a respond on your back-to-school photos, even if we always did in the past. Don’t take it personally if we respond in a way that is weird or socially awkward. Grief brain is a thing, and we don’t always communicate well while grieving.
  • Do use our child’s name when you talk to us, unless we ask you not to. Most grieving parents and family members like to know our children are remembered and missed, particularly when everyone around us is so focused on their own children.
  • If someone you are very close to has just lost a school-aged child, consider skipping posting a back-to-school photo this year. There’s no law saying that just because you take it you have to share it publicly. Decreasing the flood of back-to-school photos even by a drop may make a difference.
  • Call or text your friend with an invitation to a specific activity you know they usually enjoy, but be ready to hear “no thanks” or “not right now.” It helps just to know we aren’t forgotten in this busy time of year.
  • Create a post reminding your social media network that this time of year can be hard for grieving parents and expressing love and compassion for those who have lost a child.

And what if you yourself are grieving during back-to-school season? What can you do to take care of yourself?

  • Be aware of the time of year and its impact. Check in with your own body to make sure to meet its needs with comforting food, exercise appropriate for your abilities, and enough sleep or at least rest. Check in with your brain and heart too to make sure you are getting the amount of social interaction and emotional support that meets your needs. Think about scheduling a therapy appointment or going to a drop-in grief group even if you are not seeking that kind of formal support regularly. 
  • Consider disengaging from social media for a few weeks, or placing a limit on your use, for example, checking your direct messages but not your newsfeed. Or use social media only to interact with your grief groups. You can also “snooze” a friend on Facebook if their posts are too much for you, and then unsnooze them when you are ready. And remember to review your own settings to take control of what you see of past posts and pictures.
  • Although this isn’t an option for everyone, taking a mental health day at hard times of the year can help. Figure out what helps you most, whether it is simply taking a day to sleep in and rest or heading out of town for a day trip and a long walk somewhere beautiful. No one needs to know that when you call in sick, it’s heartsickness, not a summer cold.
  • Let people — or at least one other person — know what is going on. Choose someone you trust and tell them you are hurting, or just send them a link to this post. Tell them whether you want them to let other friends and family know or keep it to themselves. As best as you can, let your support network know what you need, whether it is just someone to sit quietly beside, a hike with your crew, a distracting Netflix binge, or dedicated time to share stories about your child and cry.
  • Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with yourself.

Do you have other ideas or stories about what helps you when you are grieving in back-to-school season? Please post them in the comments to add to this post next year. Together, we can learn to live with grief.

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