As most parents were sharing photos of their excited, smiling kids standing on their porches with their new backpacks stuffed full of school supplies, Angela Miller, a mom of four, shared a much different kind of back-to-school photo. Her photo featured her front porch, but unlike other back-to-school images, hers was heartbreakingly, painfully empty.
“Here’s where my 12-year-old son, Noah, should have stood this morning for his obligatory back-to-school picture,” Miller wrote on her post. “Today, he should have started 7th grade. Instead, he never will. Instead, I have an aching heart, an empty porch, and one less ‘normal’ back-to-school picture.”
Writer Angela Miller is the founder and executive director of A Bed for My Heart, a grief center in Minneapolis, a website and Facebook community that serves as a haven for families who have lost a child at any age or gestation. Her post, along with her mission and movement, have resonated deeply, allowing other bereaved parents the opportunity to share stories and memories of their own lost children.
Miller tells Mom.me that she decided to share the photo because it represented her reality—a reality that deserves to be shared. Her son, Noah, passed away when he was a toddler, and Miller explains that her photo was a way for her to do what moms do for all of their children—take pictures of their milestones.
Her photo was a way for her to do what moms do for all of their children—take pictures of their milestones.
“I needed to be Noah's mom,” she says. “I needed to parent him, mother him, the only way I could, on what should have been his first day of 7th grade.”
She explains that since a picture is worth a thousand words, “the picture of my empty porch expressed the ache and emptiness in my heart. It expressed the empty space where Noah should be. I posted the picture because I needed to hold space where Noah should be. I needed to honor him as my firstborn son, and honor myself as his mother. I needed to acknowledge all that was missing.”
To Miller and other families who have lost children, milestones like going back to school can be painful because they are living in two different worlds: one that celebrates the children who are physically with them and one that is grieving the piece that is missing. And although some might worry that bringing up a lost child could trigger more pain for a bereaved parent, Miller assures us that remembering is always the right thing.
“Remembering their child with them and saying their child's name is an absolute gift,” she notes. “Ignoring times of the year when a grieving parent's grief is often more acute (like back-to-school) can be terribly painful. Saying nothing at all is often more hurtful than saying something that you're afraid isn't ‘right.’”
Instead of saying nothing, Miller says that if you know someone who has lost a child, reach out to them this back-to-school season. Ask them what grade their child would have been in, say their child’s name, or simply send a text to let them know you’re thinking of the student who isn’t standing on the porch, smiling wide for their back-to-school photo.
“Be the one who remembers,” she says.