Death and Loss According to a Preschooler

Death and Loss According to a Preschooler
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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.”

explaining-death-preschoole

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.

preschooler-multiracial-dsm-2 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.

 

 

Comments

  1. maria jenkins says:

    you did an excellent job with your little girl dealing with such a haed topic, even though we want to protect our babies, life is a cycle, people are born and die, bad things sometimes happen to good people.And we as parents will always want to love & protect our children. As a teacher of young children & now a mom to 3 adult children its the best & hardest job you will ever love. Stay strong & hang in there, you’re doing just fine.

  2. Wow! I just cried my eyes out. Anyway, you did an amazing job Amiga. We have had three babies in our family that have gone to heaven and it has not been a asy on all the children in our family. But you my friend did amazing… Love ya!

  3. beautiful post, and what an immense job we have with our little ones. xoxo

  4. :( :( Alina… so pensive and observant in every photo. Her sensitivity so evident in every picture. I can only imagine how her little heart was hurting because this tragedy happened to her teacher. I do not remember exactly how old I was, (maybe a little older than Alina is now), and basically the same thing happened to my teacher whom I liked alot. I talked about it and talked about it to anyone who would listen at home. I am so grateful that my parents knew I was processing; (I still process grief in that way, or else it’s overwhelming). Alina will more than likely speak about this again at some point but most of all, I think her teacher will be comforted whenever she does return to school, by your little girls “old soul”. God Bless Alina, and her teacher too! Love you guys! & You are a Great Mama! XOXO Shay

  5. Prayers for your sweet girl.

    I was an elementary school teacher when I lost my son, my first child… he was still born. The school didn’t know how to approach it so the teachers told their classes ( I was the music teacher so I taught all 700 kids) and then they told them not to talk to me about it. I was out for three days, but I got sick from pushing myself into work after delivery. Needless to say it was traumatic for everyone.

    2 months after I conceived and now have a beautiful baby girl :) she is my rainbow.

    • Beth, I am so sorry about your loss. I can’t imagine what that must have been like… and with 700 students! Lots of love to you and congratulations on your baby girl! A healthy baby is by far the biggest miracle on this earth.

  6. Agreed- that’s one of the hardest parts of being a parent, especially when it’s their first experience with it. How sad for the teacher, and the class will take it hard too I’m sure. What a very challenging situation to be apart of.

  7. Oh Vanessa, I am so so sorry for the teacher’s loss. Your words are so sad and so beautiful all at the same time. I have tears in my eyes. My big girl is the same age as yours, and we have once dealt with the death of a bird- she immediately saw that the bird wasn’t sleeping. Then my husband and me lost our grandmothers- and we had to explain it to her… I sometimes wish I was religious and would find solace in the idea of heaven. Instead, I have to tell her that, these people are gone and they don’t exist, but we think of them and that way, they’re still with us- and this is what I told my daughter. As for birth, I didn’t have C sections, but when I was pregnant wiht our third, she would ask me: “how is the doctor going to open up your belly?” and a friend whose daughter is the same age tells me that her daughter (also not a C section) asked the same question, so maybe that’s what they think babies come from?

  8. Vanessa, this is so sad. I am so sorry that this happened and so sad for your daughter’s teacher. The school did an amazing job and your daughter is such a compassionate and beautiful little girl. You and your husband are doing such a great job, and I totally agree with your choice to send her. The whole situation is just so sad. Thank you for writing about this and sharing your experience with us. I’ve been thinking about how I will explain to my daughter when we come to this bridge.

  9. Wao, this post really touch my heart. I can tell you are an amazing mom. Dio te siga bendiciendo grandemente.

  10. My heart goes out to Alina’s teacher and her family. This is such a touching post Vanessa – I think you handled it beautifully but you are so right – there are some parts of parenting that really suck.

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