CHILDREN GRIEVING A LOSS AT SCHOOL - TERESA NAVARRO
Teresa Navarro is a preschool teacher with 24 years of experience at Home Sweet Home Preschool and Toddler Center in Los Angeles, CA. Teresa is sharing with us her perspective as a teacher working with children who experience loss.
Children grieving a pet loss at school.
We appreciate when parents let us know that something is not 100% well with a beloved pet so we can be ready with activities and literature.
In a recent case, a 5-year-old student told us “my cat is sick” and by the end of the day, the mom emailed me to let me know that they had to put the cat down and that she was picking up the student early. The next day when she came to school, the student told me her cat had died, I asked her if she got to see him, and she explained to me “I got to hold him in my arms and I drew him a picture and then we took him to the doctor.” She was eager to speak about it. She told me everything and spent the day drawing pictures of the cat and hugged me the whole day.
As teachers, we need to follow the child’s queues, whether they want to speak about it or not, draw pictures or read books, or simply be held or do activities that keep them distracted. We need to be ready to listen, more than reacting.
Young children who can’t express their feelings.
A few years ago, we had a small boy in our group, younger than 4, who was very attached to his dog that passed away. Again, the parent let me know what had happened and I was able to support him by reading books. I never mentioned the pet, but because the parent informed me, I was able to understand the reason for this new behavior: being very quiet and sad. At circle time he raised his hand and he only said, “I need a hug”. I asked him if he wanted us to call his mom, but he said no. Still, he wasn’t articulating his feelings and we didn’t push him, we just showed him physical support with hugs and rubbing his back at nap time. By the end of the day, he was able to tell us that his dog had died and that he felt sad. He told us how they used to sleep together and how he missed his dog’s warm body next to him. We gently explained to him that that feeling was going to be there for some time because they were very close. He didn’t want to draw pictures, but he asked me if he was going to see his dog again, to which I said that his dog would always be in his heart. Eventually, we read books and he drew a picture that we framed, and he put it in his room. But this whole process took over a month. Every child faces grief differently.
The behavior of a grieving child.
One time a student’s behavior changed. He lost his patience with his friends and was in a bad mood. It turned out his pet was very sick, and he didn’t know how to express his grief and didn’t cry. Again, because the mother kept us informed, we were ready and I told him “It is okay to be mad and to cry.” After many conversations he told us how his dog used to love the garden and I offered him to plant some seeds outside so when they sprouted, that it would remind him of his dog. We ended up planting a lot that year.
ADVICE FOR PARENTS
The worst thing you can tell a child is “Oh, your dog was sick” like it’s not important or that it was old or, the worst: “you’ll get another one” because we need to acknowledge that for that kid, that pet is irreplaceable.
I advise parents to keep things positive. Remember that it was a relationship of love and that the love from the pet was unconditional and the child loved it very much, too.
Take the time to draw, plant seeds, write or take a special walk with the child. Maybe get a stuffed animal to remind them of the late pet.
Be open minded. Children see things differently and we need to listen, follow their queues, validate their feelings and give them hugs, lots of hugs. Hugs go a long way.