The Empty Seat on the Bus: Mourning a Lost Future Life

I carry you with me into the world, into the smell of rain

& the words that dance between people.

And for me, it will always be this way,

walking into the light,

remembering being alive together.

~Brian Andreas

“I’m still pretty tired from my radiation treatments, but I’m planning to be back on campus this fall.”

Having finished their discussion for Jimmy’s independent study course, “Religion in Film,” he and Professor Weitzman had moved on to catching up.

As I walked by the family room, I cringed when I overheard Jimmy say he’d be returning to college in September, knowing the chances of that were slim to none. He was 7.5 years into his cancer journey, and the malignant cells were spreading aggressively in his spine and brain. Although he was still receiving conventional treatment, we were slowly but surely losing the battle.

By the time September rolled around, Jimmy was undergoing another series of daily radiation treatments, and the school year was starting without him. By February, he was gone, forever a rising junior who’d run out of back-to-school days.

Like any bereaved parent whose child isn’t here to return to school with his class, I mourn every fall for what should have been. The classes Jimmy would have taken, the new friends he would have made, the adventures they would have had together.

Back-to-school is an enduring rite of passage for both parent and child. A mingling of excitement and worry, joy and promise, relief and sadness. There were years when the kids could barely wait to go back, years when I could barely wait to drop them off and others when I could scarcely contain my gratitude that Jimmy was here and still well enough to go.

This September marks the end of back-to-school days for me as Jimmy’s younger sister Molly is finished with her one-year master’s degree and has launched into the world with a job and an apartment, ready to begin a life that Jimmy didn’t survive long enough to experience. And I am left at home thinking about the start of school days past, the ones I was lucky enough to get, the ones I will never have. The thrill of dropping Jimmy off for his freshman year, the feeling of promise about his sophomore year, the terror of the final one, knowing how fragile his health was.

When a child dies, you mourn the loss of their future life, the milestones they’ll never experience — falling in love, getting married, having children — and all the holidays you’ll have to navigate without them. It wasn’t until the first fall that I thought about the desk that Jimmy wouldn’t be there to fill. The questions he wouldn’t ask, the insights he couldn’t share.

If you have a friend or family member who’s sending one less child back to school this fall, be the one who remembers and marks that hard painful occasion. The one who sees the vacant space that should have held your loved one’s child …, the unoccupied desk in the classroom, the missing kid on the playground. Although you can’t change or fix anything, noticing who’s not there and acknowledging all that’s been lost is a gift to a grief-stricken parent.

The summer heat is searing in Sacramento, yet signs of the school season are everywhere .. the heaping displays of school supplies, shiny lunchboxes, and cheerful backpacks at Target. The “first day of school” photos were plastered across my Facebook page.

As I drive by our local elementary school, I watch the newly minted kindergarteners race around the colorful playground and think of the children who should be there and aren’t, picturing my own ghost child with his dark brown wavy hair, shiny green eyes, ready smile and merry laugh. I remember the sweetness and promise of those joy-filled days, grateful for all we had and longing for just one more.

Margo Fowkes is the founder and president of OnTarget Consulting, a firm specializing in helping organizations and individuals act strategically, improve their performance and achieve their business goals. After the death of her son Jimmy in 2014, Margo created Salt Water, an online community providing a safe harbor for those who are grieving the death of someone dear to them

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