I’m a loss mom and I’m sending my living children to school in person during a pandemic by choice.
I lost my first child to stillbirth ten years ago. As Lindsey Henke put it, losing your first child to stillbirth is a unique experience. “You never know the concept of parenting to include a time of joy interrupted by legitimate fears … You always parent through this lens of anxiety and bittersweet joy that is clouded by the idea of death lurking around the corner.”
Lindsey’s sentiments are not lost on me. Certainly, they mirror my own experience.
I’ve had four babies since losing my daughter. During those pregnancies, I’ve worried about statistics during genetic testing, knowing that “low risk” means nothing when you’ve already buried a baby. Every ultrasound started with almost crippling anxiety and then tremendous joy and tears of happiness when the little beating heart appeared. Once my kids were on the outside, I checked on them constantly during the night to make sure they were still breathing. I wondered how long I would have with them before they’d be taken from me too.
After four living children and ten years since losing my firstborn, I learned to cope with those feelings. And, before the pandemic started, I could honestly say the “idea of death lurking around the corner” wasn’t all-consuming anymore. Their typical childhood illnesses didn’t frighten me. My boys climb literally everything they can and have fallen, and I don’t lose it. My daughter jumps into the deep end of the pool or lake, with water high above her head, and I don’t panic. They’re living their childhoods and I’m so very grateful for that. I don’t want my fears to color their experiences.
This isn’t to say I don’t have worries. I’ve written about unexpected illnesses being the ones that worry me. The illnesses we don’t know. Those that are unexpected and can take someone from you quickly. Something like COVID-19.
When this all started in March, I was grateful for the schools shutting down and moving into a quarantine that would keep us all safe. As I read about kids – and babies – dying from COVID-19, I’d temporarily feel like I should isolate them in our house forever. Anxieties and fears about losing another child came flooding back. A line in an article here at PALS kept popping out at me: “We know what it’s like for our children to die.” It felt like every choice I made was a choice between life and death. I began evaluating risk and figuring out how to balance the need for as much normalcy as possible for the kids, while also minimizing possible exposure to the coronavirus. Like many loss parents, I didn’t want to know death again.
I still don’t.
Fast forward five months and my husband and I have to make the decision over whether to send our kids to school in person or to do online learning. Our district gave parents a choice for students in grades 4k through 2nd while grades 3-12 were only virtual start.
When we evaluated what would work best for our family – four kids (aged 8, 6, 4, and 18 months), working from home, and knowing we’d be largely doing this on our own – we decide to send our two middle kids to school in person. It’s the best choice for our family right now. It doesn’t feel like 100% the right choice – but I can’t say that any choice feels 100% correct.
I thought I felt confident in my decision, but then I started talking to other parents. What were they going to do? As expected, those choosing the same as I did made me feel confident in my decision. Those who did not made me feel like I was making a huge mistake. A co-worker told me they decided to homeschool because he “would never forgive [himself] if [she] got COVID.” He didn’t know what decision I had made, but his comment felt like a gut punch. I know exactly what it feels like to never forgive yourself. That’s an art I’ve perfected after losing my baby.
“A dead child can’t learn” was another comment I saw on social media about re-opening the schools. Another gut punch. Every first day of school I’m reminded of my dead child who’s not learning that year.
But those comments were from non-loss parents, and while they hurt and made me feel like I didn’t want to tell anyone what we’d decided, it was my friends in the loss community I was afraid to tell most of all.
So many loss parents talk about how they don’t find comfort in the statistics regarding children and COVID. Numbers don’t matter when you were on the wrong side of them. Many friends posting articles about outbreaks in schools, articles about children of all ages contracting COVID-19, and articles about how we don’t know the long-term effects of the virus. Every post accompanied with some sort of line reading, “I’ve already buried one child,” or “I’m not willing to risk it.”
Each of their posts made me feel judged for making the “risky decision.” I felt like because of the choice I made, I would have to somehow forfeit my “loss mom card.” I’m sending my kids into a dangerous situation, so I “don’t get it.” I’m not in that same boat anymore. I’d be cast aside with the other parents who’ve never lost a child and don’t know how awful it is to bury a child.
But here’s the thing: like grieving, we’re all doing it differently.
We’re all making the best decisions we can, in this moment, with the best available information we have at the time. We have to be kind to each other during all of this. It’s so hard. Every parent is anxious. Every decision is second-guessed (multiple times over!). Everyone is doing the best they can to stay afloat. Parenting during a pandemic is hard. There’s no reason to make anyone feel worse.
This week, I sent my kids off for their first day – the first time they been in the care of anyone else but me and their dad since March. It was an emotional morning for so many different reasons. Each day they’re at school, I’m reminding myself that their teachers and principals are trying to keep them safe too. Just like learning to trust my medical team during my pregnancies after loss and reminding myself that no one wanted another bad outcome, I’m telling myself now that no one in our district wants my kids – or any other kids – sick. We all want the best outcome.