It’s been 10 years since Angela Miller lost her toddler son Noah. And even after all this time, the grieving mother says it’s difficult to to get through the years that would have marked milestones for her firstborn child.
This year, Noah should have been heading into seventh grade, snapping back-to-school photos alongside his younger siblings. Instead, Miller found herself taking a picture of an empty porch, marking where the little boy should have stood smiling in front of the family’s Minneapolis, Minnesota, home.
“Empty porch, aching heart. Empty space where our child should be. I miss Noah always, but during milestones like back-to-school is even more visceral,” Miller tells PEOPLE. “I needed to take the three back-to-school pictures I was supposed to be taking that morning — not just two. I needed to be Noah’s mom. I needed to parent him, mother him, the only way I could, on what should have been his 1st day of 7th grade.”
When sending her sons, aged 6 and 8, off to school, Miller — who also has a 2-year-old daughter — opted to take the third picture, showing only the bright green door of the family’s home, a welcome mat and a porch swing off to the side. She shared the photo on Facebook, and the post has amassed hundreds of “likes” and has prompted other grieving parents to share photos of their late children in the post’s comment section.
“The picture has given grieving moms validation and permission. Permission not to be okay,” she says. “It’s a powerful visual that expressed what grieving parents live with on a daily basis. Someone is always missing. There’s an empty chair at every table. An empty desk. an empty porch. We are always one less.”
Noah was just 2 years old when he died in a tragedy Miller said was “a shock to my entire system.”
“One minute he was perfectly healthy and happy, the next he was gone,” Miller, who first shared her story with Love What Matters, tells PEOPLE. “Noah was my whole world. Noah was love and joy personified. When he died, part of me died.”
She says that sharing the photo was not only to honor her son, but to encourage the public to reach out to and support parents who have lost children.
“Milestones like back-to-school are excruciatingly painful for grieving parents. Remembering their child with them and saying their child’s name is an absolute gift. Reach out to a grieving parent this back-to-school season,” she says.
“Acknowledge who they’re missing. Say their child’s name. Ask them what grade their child should be starting. Ask about their favorite memories, pictures, or what they miss most about their child. Be the one who remembers. It makes all the difference in the world.”