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Supporting kids through school-change grief

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

MooMoo, my four year old, grasped my hand and asked for helping turning the water on to wash her hands the moment we walked into preschool. We stood at the outside sink, and I knew today was different. As she rinsed the bubbles off of her fingers, she said in a small voice “mama please stay for a long time with me.” We sat at a tracing table and she traced her name over and over and over, seemingly working out some of her worry on the strip of paper. I kissed her and told her I’d be back so soon- and her little eyes filled with big tears.

As she we sat on the steps and her teacher brought a book to read to her, I took a stab at what was wrong, “Are you missing Miss Holly and Bippa right now, sweet pea?” And she burrowed her face into my neck, wailing “I love Miss Holly and I love Bippa and I want a playdate with only us at school to find sparkly jewels.” My own eyes filled as I whispered back “Miss Holly was the best, wasn’t she? And that Bippa- you two are the best of friends. Those jewels were so special.” “I want my old school,” she tearfully whined back. “I know, sweet pea. That old school was just the best. I miss it too. You learned so much at your old school. Today we’re at new school. I think Teacher J has a book for you- let’s see what she brought.” Teacher J sat with us, opening a book. I kissed my little MooMoo again and waved goodbye.

You see, we moved six weeks ago. We took this little one out of the only school she’s known- a magical, warm environment where she attended with her bestie Bippa. We moved from our tiny house on the side of a mountain to a big house with a circle that MooMoo loves to ride her bike in and a patch of fruit trees that she can snack from. She is happier. And yet- there is still grief.

It was my older children I was more concerned about as we finalized our move. A week before we packed our U-Haul and moved in, we drove our family to this new house. As we told them we were moving, my six year olds began to wail. Big, loud, gut wrenching tears came out of them. I looked at my husband, terrified maybe we made the wrong move. “Un minuto, y vemos,” he murmured. It took three minutes before they wiped their tears and began asking if there was somewhere to ride bikes at the new house. The grief moved right through them, wildly, with fervor. And then it was over. My four year old was more stoic. The six year olds announced to their friends they would be moving in six days, then five, then four and three and two and tomorrow. They easily made new friends, enveloped by a teacher with deep social emotional awareness and a warm demeanor.

It’s been trickier for my four year old. She, too, moved into a warm and accepting space and quickly made new buddies. And yet, her grief has been slower- perhaps, I have wondered, because her attachment to her preschool community was so deep and so healthy.

Today, after our upset at preschool about missing our old preschool, we brought out the Goodbye Book that her class made her. Initially, she carried this book everywhere with her- for at least ten days. It was comforting to her- an object that tied her to her beloved community, a tangible way to process her loss and transition. My older daughters each had one as well, but it wasn’t as critical in soothing their transition. But grief isn’t linear and MooMoo’s popped up again today. Together, we looked at each page, and read the notes from her friends.

We took out the craft supplies, and began writing and creating and crafting for her old friends at her old preschool. As she told me what to write, her little heart in all it’s fullness and grief shown through, especially when she dictated things like “I love you my friends… I can’t see you but I love you so much… We were moving. I like to play with you all, see you next time.” and “I wish I had a playdate with you. I can’t because we moved. I don’t come to school anymore because we moved. Bye”

As she placed jewels on each creation and we prepared her envelope to mail these beautiful offerings to her old teacher and friends, things felt full. She’s allowed to have these feels. It is tricky but heartfelt to support her in them. I know she is moving through- she has a few new friends she adores (though let’s be honest, her pal Bippa is fairly unparalleled) and she enjoys her new school and teacher. And all things can be true- she can long for her old set up and the familiar comfort it offered as much as she appreciates her new school and community.

When we consider moving children and the grief that comes with closing chapters and moving on to the next one, some thing I have kept in mind for my four year old Moo Moo especially but also my younger two:

—grief takes time, and most children know what to do with theirs. For many, it is big and wild but not very caught up in any previous challenges or traumas, and so it moves quickly.

—grief is unpredictable, and it might pop up in slight or momentary ways when it doesn’t seem logical. It is OK to tend to what arises, even if it seems illogical (like- she’s been to this preschool happily for weeks!).

—transitional objects can be so powerful: a special thing, book, story, or even rock from an old place might be a source of great comfort for a child who is moving.

—priming is key: prime your child forward. Set them up for success with positive, hopeful narratives and lots of conversation about how things will go down. Often, breaking things down into very small pieces is critical.

—storytelling is a balm: support your child to storytell about their experiences. Offer materials to do so- whether it’s cards and stickers to tell stories to their new friends and a grownup who can write out their words, or a song or dance that portrays their experience- having a way to actualize their experiences and having others witness them is what helps grief move- and helps children feel seen and hopeful and valued. We need stories. So do our children.

—some ways to help children who are missing their old schools: write letters to old friends. set up video chats. invite visits. read stories about moving. reinforce new friends with playdates. lean into feelings by offering SIMPLE language.

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