06/11/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

When A Child Loses A Dad: Lessons From My Daughter's Preschool

The email from my daughter's preschool arrived as I was rushing out the door: "Urgent Message for Class 5 Parents." My heart raced as I waited for the message to load. Had there been an accident at the school? Had they tried to call but couldn't get through?

The director's solemn tone calmed my nerves as I took in his tragic words. The dad of one my daughter's classmates had died suddenly. Heart attack, age 44. The school had just received the news; his little boy, Phillip, did not yet know. None of the children would be aware, of course, and we should say nothing, act as we always do.

Little Phillip's face sprang to my mind; his adorable smile and sweetly mischievous spirit. I had volunteered periodically throughout the year and gotten to know him a bit. I'd never met Phillip's father, but had heard good things.

As I quickened my pace toward the school, I anticipated the usual busy scene at pick-up time and found myself half hoping I wouldn't see Phillip. I wasn't sure I could control the rush of sadness I felt or hide the inevitable fears the news had brought to mind.

I found myself wondering about the "best age" for a child to lose a parent. Does such a thing exist? Would Phillip's journey be any easier had he lost his father a year later? Two or three, perhaps? At least then, there'd be more memories stored in his young psyche; something more by which to remember the man who had made his life possible. Or was his young age a twisted blessing in disguise? The fact of his father's death would be beyond his rational comprehension, although awareness of his disappearance would, of course, be immediate. What can death possibly mean to a 5-year-old? How could he begin to understand?

I know from my own experience that the death of a parent can be mystifying at any age. When I lost my mother, I was 26. Even as a so-called adult, the loss was numbing. My loved ones were equally adrift as we navigated our new world that lacked its central player. Still, life marched on, seemingly oblivious to my sadness. With time, I simply learned how to be a young woman without a mother. I suppose that's what is meant by the tired phrase of grieving, "time heals."

And yet I wondered if little Phillip would need time at all? One of the great gifts of early childhood is the ability to live in the moment and nowhere else. At age 5, kids are still so deeply engaged in their experiences that the past and future have almost no meaning. It was a small comfort to imagine that his young age might somehow lessen Phillip's pain -- for now.

When I arrived at the school, I saw Phillip right away. He greeted me with a smile and surprise bear hug. I choked back tears as I looked into his eyes and realized I was witnessing his last truly innocent moments -- that from then on, his life would be forever marked into chapters of "before" and "after" his knowledge of his dad's death.

Like most of us, I cannot imagine my life without my own dad's enduring presence. I am not only his genetic legacy, but have borne witness to the devotion he showed, even when other men might have chosen a different -- perhaps easier -- path. To him I owe so very much, from my love of words and storytelling to the humor and occasionally blind optimism that serve as my life's compass. Without my Dad, I simply wouldn't be me. For better or worse, I owe him everything.

While nothing can shield us from the human experience of loss, young kids do need special support to cope in a healthy way. Experts on children and grieving offer this advice:

Expect focus on the traumatic event. If the loved one suffered a traumatic death -- an accident, shooting, fire -- children will naturally focus on and ask many questions about the event itself. They are fearful that such a thing could happen again and struggle first with this more tangible aspect of the loss.

Dramatic play and reenactment. Parents know that children seek to understand their world through play. Coping with a loss is no different. Grieving kids can often be heard acting out scenarios of death and loss through imaginary play. It's normal and expected.

Mirror healthy coping. For an adult who's grieving, this may be the hardest part. But kids learn coping skills by mirroring what they see. Allow a child to talk about their feelings of pain. If possible, share your own. This tells a child that his feelings are natural and that he is not alone.

Seek help. There are services and support groups in many communities to help grieving kids. The loss of a parent or dear loved one can make a child feel deeply alone and isolated. Being surrounded by others who understand their loss can be crucial to healthy grieving.

The next day brought word that Phillip and his family would be leaving that weekend, returning to their hometown with more family to support them. Phillip's classmates gave him hugs at the end of the day, unable to comprehend the finality of their goodbyes. It seemed another loss for a little boy whose world had been forever altered. And yet his smile persisted as he waved and walked out the preschool doors for the last time. It reminded me that grieving can be a lifelong experience, one from which the very young are mercifully shielded, if only for a fleeting time.