Bereavement: Learning about loss

Written by: Alison Penny | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Bereavement is a sensitive area for teachers and schools to tackle, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Ahead of Dying Matters Awareness Week, Alison Penny offers her advice

Dying Matters Awareness Week takes place in May with the theme of “What can you do?”

This is a key opportunity for schools to think about how they address change, death and bereavement in the curriculum.

Earlier this year, the government consulted on the content for statutory relationships and sex education (RSE), and PSHE. The Childhood Bereavement Network (CBN) opened a survey on Twitter to gather people’s views on whether PSHE should include topics on loss, death and bereavement. The majority of respondents wanted these to be covered.

Why cover these topics?

An important justification was the number of children who will experience bereavement during their childhood, or as one person told us, “all children will experience it at some point and they need opportunities to start to explore what it means before they are emotionally bound up in it”.

We estimate that around one in 29 school-age children have been bereaved of a parent or sibling – that’s roughly one per class. A parent dies every 22 minutes in the UK, and more than 100 children and young people are bereaved of a parent every day. Over two thirds of primary schools have at least one recently bereaved pupil on their roll.

As well as helping prepare pupils for their own future experiences of loss, education can help dispel myths and taboos, and help children to know how to support their peers. This could reduce the bullying and isolation which bereaved children can experience, and encourage children to seek help for themselves or for friends if they are experiencing a bereavement. One secondary school teacher told us: “I taught this as part of social education and my teenage students found it amazingly helpful. It led to a better understanding of their peers who had suffered loss.”

A school which teaches these topics is also likely to be better prepared if there is a death in the school community (e.g. a pupil, parent or staff member). Schools which have experienced a death in the school community often wish they had been better prepared.

What should the curriculum include?

We recommend a spiral approach to these topics, covering key themes:

Differences and changes in families: The death of a family member is only one of the differences in family make-up which children will be aware of. Acquiring an understanding of diversity and change in families is important in helping children contextualise death and bereavement. Children’s natural questions in this area include: “Why do I have a dad but x doesn’t? What will happen when x dies?”

Life cycles and understanding death: Understanding death is complex and involves the recognition of five key biological facts: inevitability, universality, irreversibility, cessation of all physical and psychological functions, causality. These concepts are understood at different times and at different rates, indicating that a spiral approach to teaching and learning would work best.

However, these biological concepts are not the only aspects – children also need to acquire an understanding of cultural and familial understandings, e.g. the after-life and of ways in which relationships are maintained with someone even after they have died. Younger children’s natural questions in this area include: “What does dead mean? Why do people die? What happens when someone dies? Where do they go? Will I see them again?”.

Understanding/managing feelings and seeking help: Coping with death and bereavement includes dealing with a range of feelings which might include sadness, anger, fear, relief. Being able to recognise and describe feelings is an important first step to being able to manage them, and to empathise with others. Children may also learn about how feelings are linked to physical symptoms and behaviours, and about what to do when feelings are difficult or unmanageable.

Many children’s first experience of death and bereavement will be a personal one – the death of a pet, family member or friend, and so lessons on these topics will speak directly to their own experience.

As pupils get older, the likelihood that they themselves will have experienced bereavement grows. A spiral curriculum allows pupils to explore issues at increasing depth, with the opportunity to look at themes of fairness/justice, different beliefs around death and bereavement, supporting themselves and others with overwhelming feelings, and finding appropriate support including outside the family.

What needs to be in place?

Meeting the needs of all learners on a topic such as bereavement goes beyond the content of the programme of study. Curriculum development must be part of a whole-school approach, involving proactive and flexible pastoral support, a system for managing and communicating important information about bereavements, staff training and support, and policy development.

Young people’s suggestions to us about what could help to make school a good place to learn about death and bereavement included teachers checking with young people who have recently been bereaved whether they are happy to join in the lesson, no pressure to talk about personal experiences, somewhere quiet to go or someone to talk to after the lesson if they are feeling upset, and telling them where they can get further help and support.


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