Should Death Be Taught In Schools? Study Calls For Death Education Overhaul

As adults, we know death is a part of life; but for children, learning about it often comes down to your first brush with loss, be that a pet or parent. Is there a better way to prepare children for grief than waiting for a death to happen? New research suggests so, proposing that all children could benefit from better death education in schools, not just those who have already lost someone.

Grief doesn’t care if you’ve graduated, and yet 90 percent of teachers say they don’t feel sufficiently trained to support bereaved children, according to Child Bereavement UK. The stat seems counterintuitive in the face of the 86 percent of teachers who recognize that death is something that is going to come up within the school community.

A new small-scale study suggests that death education in schools should see an overhaul, advocating for its inclusion as a vital part of the curriculum. It worked closely with a bereavement charity to conduct interviews and activities with children, which included writing stories about grief, drawing pictures, and writing letters to imaginary people. They also asked them about their experiences of adults talking to them about loss, and it revealed a theme among advice given by adults.

“Children reported that adults often said – ‘you will feel sad’, or ‘you need to be brave for your mum’,” said study author Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton from the University of Portsmouth in a statement. “This isn’t helpful; the reality of grief is that it’s not constant and it comes and goes. For children, it is even more variable than adults. On the surface, children can seem fine but when adults try to put expectations onto them it adds confusion and emotional turmoil. What we should be doing is saying things like – ‘it’s ok to feel however you feel’. This way the adult is giving the child the control and space to deal with their grief.”

By introducing grief coping strategies and death education into the curriculum, the paper suggests we could better prepare both staff and students so that the school community can be a more productive place of healing for children who have lost loved ones. 

“Teachers often lack the time or feel ill-equipped to address the complex needs of students dealing with the loss of a loved one,” explained Hamilton. “The reality is that on average there will be two children in every class dealing with a bereavement of this kind. By providing a supportive environment, children are more likely to feel safe and thrive emotionally and academically.”

Death education is something Professor Ines Testoni of the University of Padova has been advocating for, urging that it can help us to process the loss of a loved one rather than resorting to clinging on to the relationships. It was something we discussed in an interview about whether technology helps or harms grief, which you can catch in the March issue of CURIOUS.

“Since the 1980s, researchers of Terror Management Theory have shown that our life is totally conditioned by the anguish of death and yet we are totally unaware of it,” explained Testoni. “In fact, society, on the one hand, helps us to do this by setting up ideologies (such as religious ideologies) that deny death and, on the other hand, by systematically removing serious thoughts and discourses concerning death.” 

“The need to keep at bay the paralysing terror that derives from the knowledge that we are mortal, however, means that many of our dysfunctional behaviours are caused by the removal of this awareness which also continues to act at an unconscious level, leveraging socially constructed beliefs as consolatory discourses.”

Perhaps it’s time that awareness began in the classroom.

The study is published in Mind, Brain and Education Journal.

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