Talking about death with pupils

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Image: iStock

Death is something we shy away from talking about on a personal level. Anna Feuchtwang says it is time to open up the conversation in our schools

Throughout childhood, the death of a parent or someone else close is one of children’s most common and persistent fears. Death is all around – in the news, in popular culture, and of course in many young people’s own families. Three-quarters of secondary school pupils have been bereaved of someone important. Yet we seldom find the time or inclination to have a proper discussion about death: the one certainty in life.

Dying Matters Awareness Week (May 9 to 15) has the theme The Big Conversation. While the topic may be big, talking about it can be a series of smaller conversations.

Throughout the curriculum, there are many opportunities for addressing the subject of death: in biology, history, literature, PSHE, citizenship, art, media studies, RE, psychology. Mortality has occupied writers, artists, philosophers and scientists since the dawn of these forms of expression and study. Often, young people will be grappling with these issues already, and the question is not one of introducing the topic, but responding positively and openly to young people’s attempts to discuss it.

The benefits are many: giving information about what grief is like can help those who are experiencing it to understand their feelings, and enable their peers to support them better. Grief is often overwhelming and disconcerting, and discussing strategies for managing these responses and finding extra help when needed can help build young people’s resilience to cope with the challenges life will bring. Learning that it is okay to talk about death and bereavement can help young people reach out, both now and in the future.

Discussing death in the classroom will have particular resonance for pupils who have themselves been bereaved, and this needs to be handled sensitively. Telling pupils in advance about topics coming up, not pressuring bereaved pupils to answer questions or participate actively or having an alternative activity up your sleeve can give them the confidence to take part.

Of course, knowing who might be affected depends on a proactive pastoral support system with some way of flagging those pupils who have been bereaved, and remembering that, in the words of one pupil, “it doesn’t just go away in a couple of weeks or a month”.

Staff too will have their own personal experiences of change, loss and grief, which can make tackling these subjects difficult. They may be worried about becoming overwhelmed themselves or of opening up a can of worms and making things worse. Working in partnership with other organisations can be a helpful way of getting support with lesson planning, preparing pupils and referring on those who might need support.

There are many examples of lesson plans out there including from Child Bereavement UK (www.childbereavementuk.org) or Winston’s Wish (www.winstonswish.org.uk), or contact your local child bereavement service through the Child Bereavement Network, who may be able to provide assemblies or discussion sessions. You could also contact your local hospice (www.hospiceuk.org). Connecting with your local service will also help if you need to make bereaved pupils and their families aware of the extra support available to them.

Anything we can do collectively to break down the taboos about talking about death will help those facing a bereavement or dealing with the aftermath to cope with this huge challenge in their lives, both now and into their future.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

Further information

For more on Dying Matters Awareness Week, visit www.dyingmatters.org/BigConversation and for the Childhood Bereavement Network, which is based at the National Children’s Bureau, go to
www.childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk


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