Grief in preschool children-  Gabriela Navarrete Gallegos   

“Children learn how to mourn.

It is necessary to find a model of bereavement

that suits them instead of imposing an adult model.”

W. Worden

Childhood is the precious age in which the human being should be surrounded by affection, protection, education, health and mainly love; however, the COVID-19 pandemic that started at the end of 2019 has separated millions of families due to the hospitalization of one or more of its members because of this illness or, even worse, some families have suffered the definitive loss because of the death of those people. This situation has caused thousands of children to resent the temporary separation from their parents or caregivers or, what’s even sadder, it has caused them to become orphans.

In the face of these events, all of us as adults, authorities in every country and the community at large should be prepared and alert to support our children and ask ourselves: What do children do with their grief? How do they process their loss whether it is temporary or permanent?

The experience of managing a preschool dependent on the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense for more than 12 years allowed us to identify how the grieving process works after the temporary or permanent loss that preschool children suffer; consequently, in order to provide guidance to the families, educators and caregivers of these children, we created a guide that we present here briefly.

We observed that temporary loss due to absence or hospitalization or definitive loss due to death have an enormous emotional impact, which is hard to explain by preschoolers given their psychological, emotional and affective characteristics, because they are not capable of fully understanding them at that age. Moreover, when separation or loss happens, adults often repress children’s emotions with expressions such as “Shh, be quiet”, “shut up”, “stop playing”, or “don’t you know what’s going on”, without realizing that the child’s understanding may not be fully developed.

Children often live their grief in loneliness, isolation or silence, and this leads to a change in children’s hormonal state and alteration of their emotional state and health, which also happens when they feel stressed.

Preschool children do not have a definition of death as a concept, it is something abstract to them, although they can understand it through sub-concepts that adults can explain.

Children under the age of five usually believe that death is like sleep, which can be interrupted; that is to say, they imagine that a someone who died can be awakened like someone who is sleeping, because their magical thinking mixes fantasy with reality.

In the presence of loss, preschoolers feel sad, but they cannot stand painful feelings for long periods of time, so their suffering is short but intense and recurrent, being expressed through games or drawings.

WHAT SHOULD THE FAMILY, CAREGIVER OR PERSON IN CHARGE DO WHEN THEY LIVE WITH A CHILD WHO IS GRIEVING?

It is key to maintain the child’s routine to make them feel safe and never lie about what happened; we can even admit not to know the answer to some questions the child might ask, but try to give answers that they are able to understand. It is advisable to describe how the events happened according to the details the child asks for, although it is better to avoid information that is too explicit.

It is best to let the child explore what they think and know about what happened without making judgments, since the goal is that they can express their feelings. It is always preferable to avoid telling them that the loved one is asleep or that God took this person away, since these comments may cause the child to avoid sleeping or to disbelieve in God. We suggest explaining what a funeral is like, what is there and what a wake room is like. 

Moreover, we recommend giving the child time to remember the loved one in the way they prefer and allowing the child to realize that it is normal to feel sad and miss them after they died; in this situation, let the child come to you to ask questions or seek comfort, affection and relief from suffering. Talking about the loved one with those around will help the child understand what is happening and what they are going through, but never force them to do so. Perhaps, it is better to offer the child to build a box full of memories of the loved one or to divide a sheet of paper in half and draw what their life used to be like and what it is like now.

We believe that the most important and immediate action as soon as the child becomes aware of the temporary separation or death should be to make them feel that the adult is understanding, protective and comforting, helping the child to name each emotion they experience and to continue with their daily activities in this new situation.

The child needs to learn that it is helpful to ask questions in order to understand what is happening to them and their family. This will help them put aside the false ideas and fantasies or interpretations that they were creating in their mind. It is fundamental to emphasize that adults should never let children think that they are to blame for what happened (e.g., by making comments such as “you misbehaved, that is why your father died”), which leaves them abandoned in their world of fantasy and guilty thoughts.

ADDITIONAL ACTIONS

We can prepare the child for the changes they will notice in their daily life and in the usual functioning of their home without the presence of the loved one, and continue encouraging them to communicate their feelings, especially the confusing and unpleasant ones.

We recommend adults to let the child repeat questions and search for answers. We, as adults, must be attentive to messages of guilt, and correct myths and misconceptions.

We need to observe the changes that may occur in the different aspects of the child’s life and, if necessary, seek support networks. Moreover, the child should be encouraged to participate in their daily activities if they wish to do so, but should not be forced, and they should be allowed to stop and continue participating in family gatherings related to the loss of the loved one whenever they want, considering the appropriate preventive health measures.

We suggest continuing to help the child interact with others and to discuss their preferences regarding the desire to keep their thoughts private.

For a child, the loss of a loved one could be less traumatic if adults know how to support them. 

References: 

  • Universidad Anáhuac. (2016). “Cómo ayudarnos y ayudar a otros en la pérdida de los seres queridos” [How to help ourselves and others facing the loss of loved ones]. Universidad Anáhuac México Norte Graduates Seminar. November 2016, Mexico.
  • Montoya C, J. (2016). “Intervención en crisis en situaciones de duelo” [Intervention in crisis in grieving situation]. Conference held at the Anáhuac University during the Graduates Seminar. November, Mexico.
  • 4. Montoya C, J. (2016). “Duelo en la infancia y en la adolescencia” [Grief during childhood and adolescence]. Conference held at the Anáhuac University during the Graduates Seminar. November, Mexico.

Born in Mexico, Gabriela Navarrete Gallegos completed high school, undergraduate and graduate studies in the area of health at the University of the Mexican Army and Air Force. She has a master’s degree in Education Science at Valle de Mexico University, Campus Lomas Verdes as well as a Ph.D. in Leadership and Management in Upper Education Institutions at Anahuac Mexico Norte Universidad, in addition to other studies related to the field of Human Development.

During her professional career, for more than thirty-five years in the Mexican Army, she had the opportunity to work as the Head of the Pedagogical Area of the Child Development Centers One and Two “Young Heroes from Chapultepec”. She was later appointed Director of the kindergarten “Agustin Melgar”, a position she held for more than twelve years. 

In the field of early childhood education, she was an Ideologist and Academic Coordinator of the 1st Cycle of Conferences for Educators of the Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA), Mexico, and of the 1st National Congress of Educators of SEDENA. 

She is also the author and coordinator of the “Programa Niños con Necesidades de Educación Especial” [program for children with special education needs] at the kindergarten “Agustin Melgar” of the SEDENA. 

She is the author and coordinator of the “Protocolo de Apoyo a niños en duelo” [support protocol for grieving children] at the same kindergarten, which has been disseminated in the regional military hospitals across the country. 

Navarrete Gallegos is a member of the Leadership Committee of the SDN with which a new leadership model for the Mexican Army and Air Force is being built. 

Currently, she requested her retirement from active duty, and she was invited to teach Human Resources Management Learning in Escuela Superior de Guerra, Mexico.

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