A Place in Her Heart

Mexican preschooler copes with the sorrow of her grandfather’s death through drawings

Every day after returning home from preschool, Marina*, 6, would bound into her home shouting “Pa!” — the name she gave for her grandfather. He was the first person she sought out. Marina and her grandfather, who lived together with other members of their extended family in Mexico City, were very close. Marina would draw Pa pictures. They would play and eat breakfast together. They were inseparable.

One day Marina came home and Pa did not answer. It would be the beginning of a difficult healing process for the preschooler. She got through it with the help of her teachers and a Save the Children-supported arts-based program called Healing and Education through the Arts or HEART.

Marina’s grandfather had passed away while she was at school, so when she came home and learned he had died, she was distraught and confused. According to her teachers, the change in this smart young girl was “radical.” “She was afraid, introverted. She was very reserved,” said her school director, Sheila.

Marina*, 6, with her mother, Miriam, at home in Mexico City. Photo credit: Susan Warner for Save the Children.

At school and at home, Marina cried constantly and could not talk about how she was feeling. Her mother, Miriam, tried to comfort her daughter. She told her that her Pa was a star in the sky and that Marina was loved, but this did not stop the tears. Miriam, who says there is no “we can’t” in her house, looked for help. Sheila immediately had a plan. “Don’t worry, we’re going to work with Marina,” she told Miriam.

Marina*, 6, and her preschool teacher Elizabeth in their Mexico City classroom. Photo credit: Susan Warner for Save the Children.

Miriam explained that as a mother, when she saw her child hurt and crying, she just wanted the crying to stop. Marina’s teachers, on the other hand, had the tools and the perspective to guide the healing process.

One of only four classrooms in Sheila’s preschool is “El Rincón de la Calma,” or “The Calm Corner.” The walls in The Calm Corner are colorfully painted with the sun, clouds and trees. A table with art supplies is on one side and a beanbag chair is on the other. Children can come to this space to meditate, relax or express their feelings when they are sad or angry.

“El Rincón de la Calma,” or “The Calm Corner,” is a special room in this Mexico City preschool. Photo credit: Susan Warner for Save the Children.

When Marina returned to school after her grandfather passed away, she went directly to The Calm Corner. She knew she needed it. “In this case we adopted a very specific technique: expressing her grandfather’s death through drawing,” Sheila explained.

Marina*, 6, draws during a HEART activity at school. Photo credit: Susan Warner for Save the Children.

Marina would spend a short part of each day — about 15 minutes — in The Calm Corner, drawing pictures about her grandfather or writing him letters. As she drew she would speak to her grandfather, saying, “I miss you so much, I don’t know where you are, but wherever you are, I miss you, I love you,” recalled Sheila.

Marina’s teacher Elizabeth watched her heal. Marina began to open up at her own pace. “Through the paint or through the art, the drawings in this case, Marina started to express her feelings and share with her classmates,” her teacher said. Marina’s mother was surprised to hear that Marina was talking to her classmates about her grandfather, because she was still silent at home.

Marina*, 6, center, paints during a HEART activity at school. Photo credit: Susan Warner for Save the Children.

Trust between Marina and her teacher encouraged the process. If Marina’s teacher saw her start to tear up or withdraw in class, she would gently ask if she needed to go to The Calm Corner. As time went on, Marina went less and less.

At the end of one of her drawing sessions, Marina took the picture she had made for her grandfather and folded it up. With a marker, she drew a big heart on one side. Pressing the picture to her chest, Marina unintentionally left a “tattoo” in marker over her heart.

Later that day Sheila heard Marina say, “I’m tired. I feel that my grandfather is already on my heart. I don’t need this paper anymore because I have it on my skin. And whenever I want to talk to my grandfather, I know I have him in my heart.” It was at this point that Marina finally started to heal.

Marina may still miss her grandfather, but her teachers have given her the tools to deal with her loss.

Sheila has seen the growth in Marina. “Marina is a happy girl. She is open, emotional. She is not afraid to show her feelings.”

Marina*, 6, at home in Mexico City. Photo credit: Susan Warner for Save the Children.

*Name has been changed.

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