A question which I am surprised that I have not really given much thought to over the 11 years I have been working in the funeral industry is ‘what are children taught about death’?
Abi Pattenden, Freeman Brothers Manager
I should say at the outset that I have no children myself and so I am never going to have first-hand experience in this field. I do, however, know a lot of teachers, and so I should also say that I know that the demands upon those working in the important job of educating our young people and preparing them for the world can be all-consuming. I know the curriculum can’t accommodate everything and, as someone who would never consider themselves able to teach myself, the last thing I want to do is to be seen as preaching.
However, when I thought about this question, I did have a few observations, and, as this is the theme for today in Dying Matters Awareness Week, I thought I would share them.
Firstly: it makes sense to teach children about death…
It is received wisdom that children don’t have the same knowledge of societal stigmas as adults do, not just about death, but about all kinds of topics. Children don’t know why you should and shouldn’t ask about certain things. My own experience of arranging funerals for families with young children is that answering their questions honestly, without euphemistic language; encouraging them to share their feelings, and sharing your own; and explaining what is happening with clear options for their own choices can all add to them coping better at a time of bereavement. This is made clear by Winston’s Wish, a charity supporting bereaved children. Therefore, getting an early foundation in understanding the issues around what happens when someone dies can surely only be a positive thing.
Luckily, most children will not experience a bereavement until they are older, but 41,000 children are bereaved every year in the UK. Not only would education help them and their peers, hopefully in advance of this happening, but it might have societal benefits, as it is suggested that rates of offending are higher in young people who have been bereaved. Better educated children might make adults who are better able to grieve.
Secondly, there is space to teach this at the moment…
I started to wonder what children are taught at the moment and looked at the National Curriculum. Primary schools must provide Religious Education, although this can be opted out of. Presumably this could include information about rites and rituals, including when what happens when someone of a particular faith dies. Apparently Primary schools ‘often’ teach PSHE, which would be another key moment, and Citizenship, which I’ll mention more in a moment. But death could also feature in other subjects, such as English- I remember reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’, which features the death of a protagonist- when I was younger.
Citizenship becomes compulsory after Key Stage 3 (so for all of secondary school) and it is a foundation subject (therefore a national qualification is studied for) at Key Stage 4. The Department for Education describes the Purpose of Study as ‘help(ing) to provide pupils with knowledge, skills and understanding to help them play a full and active part in society’, and one of the key aims is to equip pupils to ‘plan for future financial needs’. Some key parts of the Key Stage 4 curriculum which are particularly relevant to studying death are: the UK legal system (how the Deceased must be treated and how this links to funerals), mutual respect and understanding of different identities within the UK (what do different communities do when someone dies?) and financial education (understanding why funerals cost what they do and how to plan ahead for this necessary cost).
Finally: not teaching about death has a negative impact on young people…
I am going to speak from my own experience here. Early in year 8, a friend from my tutor group (let’s call her Victoria) was called out of class. We were later told that her father had died unexpectedly. This was all we were told. No-one helped us with any feelings we might have about our own mortality or that of our families in light of this event. No-one told us how to approach Victoria or how to discuss this with her. Although she came back to class initially, no-one really knew how to speak to her, and I look back and think that she must have felt terribly isolated and alone, which makes me feel awful. Eventually her attendance at school became sporadic and she was mostly educated at home during her GCSEs. I still remember her as a brilliant artist and, in the earlier days of our schooling, a lovely friend. I feel sad that no-one helped us to deal with this tragic time for our friend in a better way and that her suffering must have been exacerbated as a result. Obviously proactive education would have been better but I hope that there would be a better system to react to this type of event nowadays (I am going back well over twenty years!).
I would like to think that there is space to talk more about death and dying in schools, in the specific forums where such social issues are mentioned, but also by bringing it into other topic areas. I know from friends’ children that a multidisciplinary approach is often used in primary schools (my friend’s little girl spent a term on superheroes, and the English, science, maths etc. was all themed around that). It may be too far to suggest death as a topic for a term, but I would love to see the education system understanding the ongoing benefits that I think there could be in bringing conversation about death into everyday educational life.
At Freeman Brothers, we believe some of the stress that is caused at the time of a bereavement may be alleviated by having a simple conversation before the situation occurs. With this in mind, we are celebrating Dying Matters Awareness Week this year by hosting a series of events entitled “Big Deal, Small Talk” – join us this week if you can, or get in touch to learn more if you’re not able to visit. All events are free to attend and open to the public – we look forward to seeing you.