First Day of School: Forever Missing the Child Who’s Not in the Picture

Back to school translates for most parents into lists, check-ups, forms, fees and fatigue! By the time summer begins to close, everyone seems to start talking about how ready they are for their children to return to a schedule… that beloved school schedule that’s far more predictable than the summertime one. But the ultimate back to school moment is the first day of school photo, right?

In my home, the first day of school was recast four years ago. My little boy passed away at 11 years old following a 4-year battle with brain cancer. Fifth grade was his final back to school picture with his sister and friends. The final “what should we wear” talk. The last new backpack.

First day of school pictures and other rituals are a treasure

His sister faces her first day of school, about to be her 5th time, in a photo alone. Of course there are those with her friends and me. And the one that captures her look when I’ve asked for one too many! But at some point during that morning, we look at each other without a word and know that we are thinking of the other half of the picture, like it’s torn in two and stored somewhere.

My daughter has a beautiful life. She’s strong and happy. But she is alone, every day and night. The loss of that across-the-hall “good night”, or running downstairs Christmas morning together, cheering at his hockey games, or first day of school picture will never be soothed. She does not spend a moment without remembering her sweet little brother. But he will always be 11. She has watched his buddies get taller, their voices deepen, their athletic victories, and getting their drivers licenses, all as her brother remains 11.

[Read Next: Siblings Unrivaled]

As a mom, I share that hollow heart with her. Since my son’s passing, I’ve finally found a way to answer the repeated, continuing question, “So, how are you”? Most of the time you’ll hear me say “Oh, I’m fine”, which is actually true. But it is so incomplete, yet so consuming to go any further. On rare occasion I will slowly reply that losing a child left a hole in half of my heart. All I can do now is garden around that hole. My son’s life was an immeasurable lesson of joy, strength, courage and faith. I have the privilege of learning from him every day. So my garden continues to grow.

What does this have to do with back to school?

It’s the picture.
The lens.

The pictures of all of your friend’s children in that special moment. It’s one of the hardest days of our year. When your lens sees him next to your daughter, but the photograph doesn’t print it in its completeness, that’s the moment you remember the definition of God’s gift to us as parents. The other end of the lens is living proof that God has temporarily shared his perfect creation with us for one more school year. And for some of us, that became our last back to school picture.

So as you lay out the outfit, pack that lunch, sneak a note into the backpack, or as I am, pack that little girl up to move to college for the first time, remember that your lens will capture your greatest gift. Pause and adore what you see in the lens.


Kid Off to College: 7 Big Talks Before They Leave

No “Right” Way to Feel When You Think About Your Kid Leaving Home 

About Kim McNeill

Kim MacNeill works full-time as president of The Ross K. MacNeill Foundation ( founded in honor of her son's 4-year battle with brain cancer.  The mission of R33M is to fund research to end pediatric brain cancer.  The Foundation is nearing $1M raised in 3 1/2 years.
Before diving into non-profit work, Kim spent 17 years in a healthcare career, and the past 18 years in the best job ever - being a mom.  Kim and her daughter live in Wheaton, Illinois.

Read more posts by Kim

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