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Q&A: UofGH's Dr. Elena Merenda publishes textbook on childhood grief

Elena Merenda

My hope is the book empowers educators to learn more about childhood grief and feel capable of supporting children. 

Dr. Elena Merenda's new textbook, Childhood Loss and Grief: Guidelines for Educators and Professionals, came from a personal and painful place.

Dr. Merenda understands how hard it is for young people to process the passing of a loved one. Dr. Merenda recently shared with us the personal tragedy that led her to study childhood grief, her insights on how to talk to children about death, and some exercises and methods to empower educators to support grieving kids.

What inspired you to explore childhood loss and grief?

When I was 15 years old, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It started with a tumor on his spine, which paralyzed him. For one year, he was in and out of hospitals and rehab centres, where he received treatments for the cancer and therapy to learn to walk again. We visited him almost daily, and he was able to come home most weekends. My dad died exactly one year and one day after his diagnosis. 

At the time of his death, I was 16 years old. My younger sisters were thirteen and ten. His death impacted us all very differently. It was a difficult time for us because our dad died, but in a way, we also lost my mom to her own grief. I remember that there were days where she didn’t come out of her room. So consumed in her own grief.

Because of this, I had to grow up much faster than most 16 year olds. During my dad’s treatment and even after his death, I had to take on the caretaker role for my sisters. I also had to take on more responsibility around the house and try to be there for my mom. 

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work with children, but it wasn’t until this experience that I knew I wanted to work with them therapeutically. 

While I was in college studying Early Childhood Education, I had a placement at the Hospital for Sick Children. I remember my first day there. I walked into the hospital and I was bombarded by familiar and comforting smells. The sounds, the doctors’ and nurses’ uniforms, it was all so comforting to me. I remember I messaged my mom and said, in a very weird way, I feel like I’m at home.

For 6 years I volunteered at the hospital and at Ronald McDonald House. My plan was to become a Child Life Specialist. But then I was offered to teach some courses at Humber College and at the University of Guelph-Humber and I fell in love with educating and empowering early childhood professionals to work in the therapeutic areas of the field. Traditionally, early childhood educators were only recognized for their work in childcare settings. But I knew that our knowledge and skills were an asset to working with children who are ill, dying, and grieving.

Although this wasn’t the path I expected, I quickly decided post-secondary education was where I needed to be. 

Why is it such a daunting challenge for educators and professionals to help children dealing with loss and grief?

Not just for educators, but in Western culture, death is such a taboo topic. Loss, death, grief, they are all such difficult things for people to talk about. I think it’s because we don’t like to sit in the discomfort. We don’t like to talk about difficult things because it’s too hard. It makes us feel vulnerable and we feel weak. Unfortunately, many people see sadness, tears, and pain as a sign of weakness. But these experiences and moments of pain and vulnerability are what helps us to build strength and resilience. They are important experiences and conversations to have. It is only in that discomfort and pain that we are able to grow and become.

For people working with children, talking about death is particularly daunting because it involves children. Historically, it was believed that children don’t understand death and dying. There was a universal belief that children don’t grieve. And as adults, we assume that because these are difficult conversations for us to have, then it must be impossible for children. We try to protect them from the pain by ignoring the reality. We think that by doing so we are supporting children, but it’s actually having the opposite effect.

The truth is, children are intuitive and receptive. They understand illness, loss, death much better than we give them credit for. It is important that educators and adults are able to have conversations with children about these uncomfortable topics because if we don’t, children will come up with thoughts and stories in their own heads about illness and death. Stories and thoughts that are often much scarier than the reality. 

What can you share with me about the process of publishing this? What were some of the challenges in the research process?

When I was at Ryerson studying in the Masters of Early Childhood Studies program, I wrote my dissertation on how the death of a parent affects children. I conducted qualitative research, involving interviews with parents and a child life specialist, discussing their experience of how the death of a parent impacted their own children.

I always wanted to have my work published, but in order to have it published in a journal, I had to trim it down significantly. This was a difficult task because there was so much information, research, and personal experience that I thought was too important not to share.

In the midst of starting my role as the Assistant Program Head for Early Childhood Studies, writing my dissertation for my doctorate program, and preparing to have my second child, I decided I wanted to turn my work into a textbook. Because I had my dissertation, my main goal was to extend on what already existed in my dissertation. My dissertation mainly focused on the death of a parent, but I wanted the book to explore loss more broadly. This includes divorce and childhood illness. The bulk of the research was done, but now I had to arrange it into a book, and extend on the practical piece for educators. I also wanted to include case studies, so I interviewed adults who lost a parent as a child, adults whose parents divorced when they were children, and adults who had cancer during childhood.

The process took me just over 2 years to complete. It took me a year to write, and an additional year for the manuscript to be reviewed by two reviewers and edited by the publisher.

My main challenge when writing the book was finding a balance - I wanted to share a wealth of information, but I also wanted to keep the book at a reasonable length. I wanted the books to be an easy read. A starting point for educators to feel inspired to incorporate loss and death into their curriculum. My hope is the book empowers educators to learn more about childhood grief and feel capable of supporting children.

You provided strategies for educators to talk to children about death and ideas for therapeutic play experiences. Are resources such as those often hard to find for early childhood educators?

There are many other sources that discuss talking to children about death and with the internet and platforms like Pintrest, anyone can find therapeutic activities. However, in my opinion, most are tailored for therapists. Although the field of early childhood studies has come a long way and there is more recognition and appreciation for the role of the early childhood professional, there is still a disconnect. The early childhood professional is prepared to support the whole child. This means that our role is not just to educated children. It is also our job to support the emotional and social well-being of children. Children come to programs with invisible backpacks on. In these backpacks are the experiences they have at home both good and bad, various developmental, physical, and emotional needs, some backpacks have experiences of trauma, abuse, and hunger. All of this weighs heavily on children and impacts them throughout the day and certainly throughout life. As educators are with children for most of the day, it is their responsibility to support children in expressing their thoughts, feelings, and fears. Early childhood professionals have a powerful tool. And that tool is play. Play is children’s way of communicating and expressing themselves. And it is through play that not only do we teach children mathematical concepts and literacy skills, but we can also use play as an outlet for children to express themselves.

So, while other books expand therapists’ tool kits, I hope that my book supports educators in understanding how they can implement grief support in their own practices. 

This textbook seems to be consistent with your efforts to empower early childhood educators to not put limits on the amount of positive influence they can have both within their profession and in a child’s life. Why is that such an important goal? 

When I began my journey in the therapeutic area of the field, it was very uncommon for an early childhood educator to be in this role. I knew this was untraditional, but it was something I really wanted to do. It was a mark I wanted to make in the field. Because at the time this was so untraditional, my experiences were mostly volunteer experiences because paid positions didn’t exist. It was through these volunteer experiences and the relationships I made with other professionals, where I realized this wasn’t just a hope for me. It was actually possible for early childhood professionals to work therapeutically with children. This is when I decided to work in post-secondary education because I knew that if I could empower the students, who are the people going out into the field and effecting change, then I could somehow impact the field and the perception of the early childhood educator. 

Working in post-secondary education, I quickly learned that not only did early childhood professionals need empowering to work therapeutically with children, but they also needed empowering in seeing their own worth. Years of political and social belief that early childhood professionals were glorified babysitters has had a toll on the profession. As early childhood professionals, we know the work that we do is important. We know that we are the glue to healthy childhoods, which is the foundation for a healthy and successful society. But when you are constantly told the work that you do is not important, and children/childhood is not important, you feel defeated. You do your job, you love your job, but that’s what it becomes- a job. I have made it my main goal to empower early childhood professionals because I believe they are essential. I want them to walk into their programs each and every day knowing that they are making a difference. I want them to feel important. I want them to feel capable and confident. I want them to know that the work that they do is not just a job. The work that we do with children has so many long-lasting effects. They should feel proud of themselves and proud to be a part of such an important profession.

We also understand that you are working with RECEs who have been found guilty of professional misconduct? What inspired you to do that?

About two years ago, I was asked by the College to be a Subject Matter Advisor who provides feedback and contributes to resource development for the College. Since then I have advised on a number of initiatives including changes to their membership requirements and updates to their Codes of Ethics and Standards of Practice. Recently, they asked that I mentor Registered Early Childhood Educators who have been found guilty of professional misconduct. 

Without hesitation, I said yes. Mentorship is important to the profession.  I think it’s important for Early Childhood Educators to support Early Childhood Educators. The employment opportunities for early childhood professionals are vast. This means we all have a wealth of knowledge and experiences that we should be sharing with one another. When an RECE is found guilty of something, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ever be able to work with children and families again. It doesn’t mean that they are a threat to children’s safety. Most of the time it simply means that they made a mistake and this is something all of us can relate to as humans because we all make mistakes. RECEs’ mistakes are just put in the spotlight and taken seriously because their actions impact children who are a vulnerable population. Being found guilty also means that the RECE needs some advice and a different perspective for how they can do and be better professionals. 

Obviously you are providing a valuable service to them – do you take something away from it personally as well?

So far, this has been an amazing experience for me both personally and professionally. Professionally, I am given an opportunity to explore and understand some of the barriers and gaps early childhood professionals face and how the Early Childhood Studies program at the University of Guelph-Humber can prepare future early childhood professionals to face these barriers. 

Personally, I am humbled. I have met some wonderful people. I have been able to thank them for all that they do and support them through a difficult experience. I have always wanted to make a difference and impact people in positive ways. This experience helps me to fill this bucket of happiness for myself and allows me to feel fulfilled.