How can we talk about death?

Written by: Zinnia Wilkinson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As schools begin to re-open to more students, we will need to deal with conversations about death, bereavement and grief. In this article, teacher Zinnia Wilkinson explains how she worked with her students after the death of her daughter

As the director of pastoral care at a thriving girls’ school, I am keen to make sure that our pupils know they can talk about anything – without judgement, criticism or opinion.

We live in a world where many taboos are fast being eradicated and yet it seems to me that while we confidently address issues like gender, mental health, sexuality and disability, there is still one subject that even the bravest of us shy away from broaching: death.

The irony being that in that list of “difficult conversations”, death is the only one we can all guarantee to experience – not only as a bystander, but as the protagonist. Indeed, as we navigate the choppy waters of education in the Covid-19 crisis, this is possibly something which even more of our pupils will have first-hand experience of, thus the need to feel confident in managing conversations about death and dying appropriately.

In 2017, my 19-year-old daughter, India, died of a brain tumour. She had been ill for two years and in the months preceding her devastating death, I found myself thinking increasingly often about how hard we find it to communicate about this subject.

India was not one of these people. From the moment her diagnosis became terminal she focused on preparing for the inevitable. Not just by seeing those she loved, having important conversations and fulfilling lifetime dreams, but also by planning her funeral, writing letters to her close family and giving us all instruction about how to behave in the light of this unenviable circumstance.

I have no idea where she found the strength, but time after time, family and friends arrived to visit, first at home and later in the hospice, wearing sombre faces and with ready tears, only to leave wreathed with smiles, having spent an enjoyable half-hour in India’s composed company, literally feeling happier.

In the last two weeks of India’s life, as she lay unconscious, waiting for her body to fail her as her brain had done, I considered how I, in my role as a teacher, could possibly garner this strength of will and use India’s tragic experience to make a positive difference.

I was painfully aware that we are not taught how to respond to the certainty of death. We are fearful of saying the wrong thing to those who are in the pit of dying or who are watching someone they love die and I knew that I wanted to use this experience to make a difference – but how?



READ ALSO: When death happens: Bereavement in schools, November 2019: To mark Children’s Grief Awareness Week, Alison Penny considers how schools can be better prepared to support young people who are coming to terms with the death of someone close



Not long after, when I returned to my job at school, I started to understand how this might be possible. The pupils taught me my first lesson. I had been back in the classroom only two minutes when one of my pupils said: “Mrs Wilkinson, your big girl is in heaven now isn’t she?”

I was so relieved – here was a four-year-old finding a way to speak the truth, while despite the best of intentions, my colleagues and friends struggled to find the right words. This level of candour continued over subsequent weeks, when the girls regularly referred to India without sadness or pity, but in open recognition of her importance to me.

So when did we lose the self-confidence to speak as we find? Why do we fear honesty in discussion surrounding a death? How can we communicate with the people we love when they are dying or grieving? And what can we do in schools, to support our children in retaining their youthful sincerity, while honing the life-skills they will need to navigate the complicated paths of bereavement?

It was with these matters in mind, and a desire to make a difference, that I started to look for a way to introduce death into the curriculum.

Talking to St Michael’s Hospice, where Indi had spent her final days, I became aware of Dying Matters Awareness Week and started to think about how I could use this focus to encourage discussion about death at Malvern St James, without plunging the school into an untimely depression.

This was not about me or mine, but about the school community. I wanted to open eyes, to help people confront fear and to promote a joy of the wonderful life we are all so lucky to have.

Starting with a whole-school assembly, I shared a poignant picture book by Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen called My Sad Book. It is incredibly moving to be aware of a room of 400 people, aged four to 60-plus, all absolutely silent and absorbed. Such is the power of Michael Rosen’s words accompanied by the projected illustrations of Quentin Blake.

This ageless account of a man’s bereavement and the resulting emotional spaghetti he experiences proved an excellent way of tapping into the collective remembrance of the community.

A number of previously chosen members of the school lit candles in memory of those they had lost: representatives of the pre-prep, prep, senior school, sixth-form and staff, illustrating that we have all suffered loss to one degree or other.

A brave student from our sixth form read a short prayer in memory of her father. It was undeniably stirring.

But echoing Michael Rosen’s book, I wanted the girls to know that death is not all about sadness. It is about happy memories, about paying tribute and about making the most of our lives. In order to celebrate our loved ones and focus on the future, the school engaged in activities throughout the day, with students and staff dipping in and out between lessons as they wished.

In the dining room, we erected a board entitled You Only Live Once, flanked by a table with a collection of pens and sticky notes. As the day wore on, so the board filled with the dreams of the school community: swim with sharks, be prime minister, learn Italian, climb Kilimanjaro, run a design company, live to see my grandchildren, write a novel, and many more.

Meantime, on a patch of sun-lit grass surrounded by school buildings, girls used natural and recycled items to create a stunning Mandala – a spiritual symbol representing the universe. Individually, in pairs or in groups, girls worked on creating the beautiful patterns, placing the fir cones, bottle tops, sticks and wooden discs to represent the memories of those they had loved and lost. Younger pupils made memory bracelets, older girls wrote about their experiences of loss, all of us talked freely and some of us cried too.

It was an opportunity to embrace the eternal presence of those who guide us despite their absence and to acknowledge our own luck and privilege as we enjoy all that living has to offer.

Despite the unusual nature of this focus, it brought the whole school community together in a way that I could not have anticipated. I have no doubt that all of us still have a long way to go before we feel comfortable with death. But we can learn all the time, from children, from each other and from those who have experienced grief first hand.

My lovely Indi made a film a few weeks before she died, supported by the wonderful people at St Michael’s Hospice in Hereford. It finishes with the Dr Who quote: “We are all stories in the end, just make it a good one.” As mantras go, that’ll do for me.

  • Zinnia Wilkinson is director of pastoral care at Malvern St James Girls’ School in Worcestershire.

Further information & resources

  • You can watch India’s film on YouTube via http://bit.ly/37PJTwG
  • Dying Matters: Raises awareness of issues related to dying, death and bereavement: www.dyingmatters.org
  • Every year in May, Dying Matters hosts an Awareness Week aimed at putting the importance of talking about dying, death and bereavement firmly on the national agenda. Visit www.dyingmatters.org/AwarenessWeek
  • Winston’s Wish: offer support for children and young people who have suffered a family bereavement: www.winstonswish.org
  • Child Bereavement UK: Helps children and young people (up to age 25), parents, and families, to rebuild their lives when a child grieves or when a child dies: www.childbereavementuk.org


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