Death and Loss According to a Preschooler
Over the weekend, I received an email from Alina’s preschool teacher that created a pivotal point in my parenting: do I shield my young child from pain and hurt, or allow her to walk straight into a potential sea of loss, death and sadness? Daddy D and I had to make a choice that evening, whether to send our child to school on Monday or protect her. It’s a conversation that I won’t soon forget.
Especially for DSM readers that have been around awhile, I wish you could meet Alina. She’s a normal kid, by all means, but there is a depth to her that is all too familiar. She’s smart – not crazy book smart, but intuitive and observant. She’s so sensitive. And so guarded. While she loves her preschool, they haven’t even begun to tap the surface of the person she really is. One experience that she has been living through at school has been her teacher’s pregnancy. So much so that she’s begun to talk about becoming a mom… her fears of getting “cut open” (I had c-sections), conversations about adoption and reciting mom’s mantra of “5 Things to Do Before Having a Baby”. With her long, beautiful fingers spread open, she counts, “first I graduate from college, then I travel the world, number 3 is find a nice boy – really nice like Daddy – then I get married. And THEN I can have a baby.”
So, when I got the news that Alina’s preschool teacher had delivered her baby girl, yet lost her within 24 hours due to a genetic defect, my heart sank. This was her first child, and she’s such a sweet, loving woman. I had met her husband, he was at the class parties, helping the teacher-duo by taking pictures of the kids. And my heart hurt that they had to endure what is unthinkable to many of us.
However, as I read the email, my focus turned to my own daughter as it explained that the children would be told on Monday. This would be my preschooler’s first and closest experience with death, and I wasn’t sure I wanted it to happen without my presence. I wasn’t sure I wanted it to happen at all. I wasn’t sure I was ready to let my daughter walk into a world where babies die. How did my parenting come here so fast?
Alina’s preschool is religiously based, so I knew the explanation would be presented as a joyous occasion filled with images of heaven and health. I also knew and trusted that she was a in a loving environment, and I would be called if Alina was distraught. But I know my girl – she would never lose her cool in front of her teachers and her class.
After we put the kids to sleep, D and I sat down to discuss the email and how we would parent through this. I told him I wanted to keep her home. He said that wasn’t realistic, that everyone would know but her and she wouldn’t have a chance to process with her class. I agreed. Ultimately, there was no choice but to send her off to school that day. We spent the rest of the weekend together, and happy. On Sunday afternoon, when I reminded Alina that she had school the next day, that she had missed so much because we were all sick the previous week, her response put a steel rod straight down my back.
Alina said, “Yes mama, we can’t get our friends sick. Especially not Miss Teacher or the little baby in her belly.” [teacher’s name omitted]
I almost started crying right then and there. That moment was hard. Instead of crying, though, I stiffened my body, held my resolve tight in my chest and decided to be there for my daughter in whatever capacity she might need. I sent her off to school yesterday as a little girl and I picked her up a little less little and as a preschooler living in a world where, sometimes, babies have to go to heaven.
In amazing professionalism, Alina’s preschool did an exceptional job with our children. They explained their teacher’s loss. They allowed the kids to share what they thought the family was feeling, and what the baby might be doing in heaven. They made crafts in the baby’s honor. They had a special baby center to play and take care of a baby. While I saw the pain in her eyes, Alina’s primary teacher was the pinnacle of strength and compassion. I am so grateful to them.
And then it was my turn.
By the time she was strapped in her car seat, the words started to come out. Had I not known beforehand, I wouldn’t have understood, but I just let her keep rambling. We ate lunch out, at her favorite Mexican restaurant, and it was there were she finally said, “Miss Teacher’s baby was sick and went to heaven”. 10 minutes later, she asked for a hug. In that booth, I cradled my baby while tears rolled down her face for a reason she didn’t quite understand. We said a prayer for the baby and for mine, who are healthy and happy. I held her tight, communicating to my child that she is safe, and silently found my resolve to parent Alina through this moment and show her how to move on.
After lunch, we went to Walmart to buy crafting materials for her Valentine’s Day box. We crafted and cooked dinner. She told her dad as we sat at our dinner table. And when I was on the phone with my dad later that night, she told her Abuelo too. She told anyone who would listen as she processes and normalizes a new world where loss and death are real.
I’ve been a mom for 4 years now. My personal identity as a new mom feels like another century, yet so familiar. Parenting a child is different from parenting a baby or toddler. I’m learning that this part of my identity will require even more… more compassion. More patience. More knowledge on child and adolescent development. More commitment to raise children into self sustaining, high achieving and happy (above all else) members of this world. What I had to do yesterday had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with parenting a preschooler who just found out that death happens. And you know what? That part of parenting really sucks.