Our social media feeds in August are chock full of first-day-of-school pictures as parents mark that important milestone with photos of smiling kids wearing shiny new backpacks.
But the start of a new school year isn’t joyous for everyone. For parents experiencing child loss, it’s a familiar sting. Their children aren’t standing on the porch posing for pictures because they are sadly no longer here.
Rachel Whalen, from the website An Unexpected Family Outing, is a kindergarten teacher and knows the pain of child loss all too well: Her daughter Dorothy was born sleeping in 2016.
This year, as Whalen was getting mailings together for her incoming kindergarten families, she stopped short and decided to write a heartfelt Facebook post.
“I thought of them; the children who should be coming to kindergarten,” she wrote in her post. “I imagined the families who should be receiving letters from new teachers, but instead, they are receiving yet another dose of heartbreak at the milestone their child did not reach. So, I have decided that, for this year, they can join my classroom. I will be their teacher.”
In her post, she also wrote a letter to the children who are missing from those back-to-school photos who would have started kindergarten this year.
The letter reads:
Welcome to kindergarten! My name is Mrs. Whalen and I will be your teacher. I am looking forward to holding space for you in my classroom this year. Even though you can’t physically attend, I will feel your presence in my classroom every day.
Kindergarten is an exciting place and how I wish you could experience it with me! I want to teach you all about letters, the sounds they make, and how to make words. I wish you could be next to me as we learn lots about numbers, plants, and animals. I’ll be thinking of you when we learn about life cycles and watch as our classroom caterpillars become beautiful butterflies. I just know you would have so much fun studying the work of famous artists, making scientific discoveries, and learning so many other wonderful things.
I know how much your families wish you were here to share the joys of kindergarten with them. They want to walk you to your new classroom, help you hang up your backpack, and hear all about your day. Please know that no matter how full our classroom is, you will always be missed.
So, on the first day of school, please make sure you send a little extra love to the ones who are missing you. They will be doing the same for you. I am so honored to have you as part of my classroom and to hold space for you in what should be your year in kindergarten.
The letter struck a chord with grieving parents who shared their stories and offered their heartfelt thanks for Whalen’s letter acknowledging their children:
“My Sophia should have started preschool this week,” shared one commenter. “I’ve spent all week imagining her beautiful, perfect name on one of the cubbies, right next to her buddy Jimmie.”
“As I sit here with my 4-year-old thinking of his first day of school next month I so badly wish that his twin sister was going with him,” said another grieving parent. “Thank you for that letter … ”
“I see this not only for families who have angels in heaven, but also for families who have children with illnesses or disabilities that prevent them from coming,” wrote another. “When I was reading it, I was thinking about my son who wasn’t ready yet, and for my friends’ children who are medically fragile.”
“This year should’ve been Liam’s year to start kindergarten,” another commenter shared. “He passed away at 22 days old. Thank you so much for sharing this.”
Whalen explains that losing a child isn’t just about losing the person, but also about losing the dreams you had for them. She tells Babble why she felt it was important to write the letter.
“When you think of having a child, you imagine all the milestones that lay ahead: first steps, first holidays, first day of school,” she says. “When your child dies, you lose those things. As a kindergarten teacher and a loss mom, I wanted a way to include their children in one of those milestones they missed and that’s why I wrote the letter.”
Whalen understands that people often don’t want to make loss parents feel sad by mentioning their lost child, but points out that one of the biggest fears of a grieving family is that their children will be forgotten.
“To them, I would say: Our child’s death makes us sad, not our child,” says Whalen. “Talking about our child and saying their name is actually comforting. It means so much to me when my friends and family let me know they are thinking about my daughter, Dorothy. I love to hear and see her name.”
Whalen returned to her classroom to teach just six weeks after Dorothy was stillborn, so a new school year is painful for her, too.
“One of my first tasks was to help my students make Mother’s Day gifts and cards,” she recalls. “It was so hard to help them write “I love Mommy” when I knew my daughter would never make me a card like that. I have lots of these moments where I have to balance my role as teacher and grieving mother. I’m always looking for ways to honor both roles.”
Whalen knows that the day will come when Dorothy will be missing out on her first day of kindergarten. Still, she says that helping others who are in pain helps her cope with her own. She tells Babble that writing the letter has allowed her to honor all of those families and children who were missing out on their first day, as well as honor one of her goals as an educator: to create a classroom community where ALL students feel welcome.
Whalen also takes part in KinderCares, a non-profit organization that helps grieving families navigate life after child loss.
Her efforts are certainly appreciated.