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The first day of school is not joyous for everyone


It seems fitting that as I write this, my first blog, that it is raining. It is like even the heavens have opened the floodgates of grief to commiserate the “what could have been”. Emotionally charged special days brings physical grief. “The body knows, the body remembers” is a concept explored by the author Megan Devine.

For those parents and children heading off to the first day of school, please remember that it is not a joyous occasion for everyone. For those who have suffered a loss of a child (live birth, stillborn, miscarried, separation/divorce/estrangement or any other loss) it is a not-so-gentle reminder of another year that we don’t celebrate a milestone with them. We mourn the loss of rituals associated with the season that others get to experience.

And it is not just the first day of school that are emotional triggers. Stores seem to capitalize on the back-to-school theme often as early as a month after schools close. Shelves get filled with school supplies and related merchandise, and just walking by them can be a real trigger. We wonder what lunch box and backpacks they would have preferred, or what outfit they would have worn and been photographed in for that cringe-worthy annual school photo. Radio and television commercials seem to be endlessly talking about back-to-school preparations or the first day of school. Social media posts from others who have school-age children can be a trigger. Social media posts about after-school programming and people who are looking for or providing after-school care can be triggering. There are articles about suggestions by nutritionists for healthy back to school routines and lunch box suggestions to contend with. Grocery stores have displays specifically geared to back to school lunchbox suggestions like peanut-free school safe snacks.

Then there are even more visual triggers. School busses travel up and down residential streets in the last week before school starts, providing opportunities for new bus drivers to familiarize themselves with new routes. First time riders have an opportunity to check out what a bus ride to school is like. New school bus stop signs pop up in the neighbourhood. Even just driving through a school zone can be a trigger and a cause to adjust driving routes. On the actual first day of school, children are up early, waiting at bus stops, riding on the busses and/or are seen walking to school in small groups.

“Triggers are like little psychic explosions that crash through avoidance and bring the dissociated, avoided trauma suddenly, unexpectedly, back into consciousness.”- Carolyn Spring

The loss of a child is just one example of why the first day of school is not a joyous occasion for everyone. For those students of any age who have lost an important person in their life such as a parent, sibling, friend, or adult relative (through death, divorce, separation, military deployment, or a host of other situations), going back to school on that first day is especially tough.

The students miss the rituals too that were built up over the years. They worry about who will help them with their subject-specific homework since their former person is gone. Even though it is months away, they worry about having to make holiday cards, parent-teacher interviews and joining extra-curricular events. Their main worry is how to handle the inevitable but innocent questions from teachers and friends. Given a choice, their instinct might be to keep the death a secret.

They fear being labeled and treated differently. They may fear being bullied or teased or even socially ostracized by peers who prefer to play with someone “who isn’t so sad”. Often, they fear being treated differently or being seen as “the kid whose (parent/caregiver/sibling) died.”

Casual conversations (of the “getting to know you” type) are not easy to navigate at any age. Older students are more aware of saccharine sympathy and off-hand comments. They worry about how to handle unwanted hugs from their peers who have heard about the recent loss. They worry about what people will say and how to cope. They worry about the “optics” of leaving in the middle of a class to see a counselor or a social worker. They worry about their inability to focus and concentrate. They worry about not being granted an extension on schoolwork deadlines when that is what they really need because their grief is flaring up. (Grief doesn’t follow a linear progression). They worry about which staff members already know about the situation, and who doesn’t and how to explain it to them if needed. They worry that their private space they scoped out in advance will not be available to them when needed at that moment of crisis.

The loss of a pet before school starts is another situation that students of all ages need to navigate. Pets and their human owners of all ages often share a special bond. The attachment can be like, and as strong as, the feelings held for family and friends. For this reason, when a treasured pet dies, the grief experienced by its owner can be intense.

Going back to school without a pet brings challenges. Routines such as walking a dog before and after school, feeding the pets, or perhaps being accompanied to the bus stop are no longer applicable. No longer do we have a pet to talk to about our day at school or to confide our worries or to share secrets with. Pets give us unconditional love and mourning their loss provokes emotional and physical pain. People of all ages fear that the loss will be trivialized by others. Again, “getting-to-know you” activities often done at the beginning of the school year frequently mention pets. How do you answer the question about pets?

Grieving children are more vulnerable at times of transition. The beginning of the school year is an ideal juncture for education professionals to remind themselves of steps that can help recognize and support grieving students over time.

Some parents may be triggered by the first day of school because they are suffering from “empty nest syndrome” for the first time in their lives. Children must grow up and lead independent lives. However, if they are starting college/trade school/university and moving away from home to live on their own, this experience can lead to episodes of grief.

Parents of pre-school aged children may not see the first day of school as a particularly joyous time. The realization that their child is growing up sets in and they worry that they haven’t prepared them enough for this momentous occasion.

For the parents who have lost a parent themselves, there are challenges associated with the back-to-school season. If the parent lived close and was an emergency babysitter, there is a reality that will set in on the first time they are not there but needed.

For those parents who lost a spouse (or have become a single parent), there are challenges associated with the back-to-school season. The daily rituals have changed. Who can help with the morning drop offs and pick ups, getting the lunches packed, the breakfast ready, the backpacks emptied at night? Is their someone else who needs to be added to the school emergency contact list? Who can help with homework, school projects, and attend school events?

Mourning takes time. In addition to dealing with feelings of loss, you also may need to put your own life back together all whilst supporting your children. It is difficult to remember that they are grieving, too. It will take time for the whole family to adjust to life without the spouse. Relationships with the children and their relationships with each other will change. Open, honest communication with everyone, including school personnel is important.

Speaking of school personnel, we can’t forget about the triggering effects the first day of school may have on those who have recently (or not) retired or left the profession for various reasons. Those who attend retirement planning workshops are often counselled on preparing a game plan for that first September out of the classroom/school environment.

For those who have decades of service in education, there is a certain grief that comes with the loss of identity from one’s former profession, especially if there was a degree of high importance or authority associated with the job. From a societal perspective, it feels like we’ve gone from being important to something less than. All too often our self-perception has become intertwined with what we did and once we now longer do that job, the grief may set in and be triggered on the first day of school.

The first day of school is just one day on the calendar, but in our hearts, it lasts more than one day. “Cry. Forgive. Learn. Move on. Let your tears water the seeds of your future happiness.”- Steve Maraboli

In summary, the first day of school can be wonderful, exciting and a host of other emotions, including sadness and grief and thus may not be joyous for everyone.

-September 6, 2022



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