Abi recently presented at a conference on death in education in the UK. Read more about her experience here…
Freeman Brothers’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, is kept busy with the day-to-day running of our offices in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint, but we have always seen our work as funeral directors as being more than just the business. We have been working in Sussex for over 160 years and feel a duty to the communities we serve to engage with the wider world and the issues which may be of importance to death, dying, and bereavement. In this spirit, the company was delighted to support Abi when she was elected President of the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) in 2018. Abi is now the Immediate Past President, and in this capacity presented to a conference at Bath University. Here she tells us about her paper and how she came to the ideas it contains.
Something which has always interested me, is how children are (or aren’t!) talked to about death. I have arranged many funerals where children were within the family, and it’s apparent that there is a range of ways that the impact of a death upon children is dealt with. I also had experience of a friend’s father dying when I was at school and felt that had been dealt with badly. This thought process led to the creation of the NAFD’s ongoing Bereavement in Childhood project.
When it was noticed that the 14th annual Conference on the Social Context of Death, Dying and Disposal was taking place in Bath on the topic of Education and Engagement, we submitted an abstract about this project and its links to other research, and were delighted when it was accepted. I attended the whole Conference, and there is a blog post about the experience, but I hope detail about my paper will also be of interest.
It is not surprising to note that people are not always keen to talk about death. This can cause problems when someone dies, because the NAFD’s research shows that the most important factors for someone who is arranging a funeral include making it what the person would have wanted – hard to achieve when you don’t know what that would be! Half of those surveyed who had arranged a funeral said they had known little or nothing about the wishes of the person who had died. Connected to this is the fact that 20% of people say that they cannot identify a reason that would prompt them to think about their own funeral wishes.
This lack of conversation is unhelpful generally, but significant in that it inhibits teachers in supporting children who experience bereavement. There is no good time to be bereaved but recent research used in my presentation (carried out by Cambridge University’s Education Faculty for the childhood bereavement charity Winston’s Wish) demonstrates how bereavement in childhood can impact throughout life. Being bereaved as a child can affect health and wellbeing into adulthood, and even mortality. If a child loses a parent through an unnatural cause, they are twice as likely to die by suicide as their peer who has not been bereaved. There are other outcomes, too, including becoming a victim of bullying, school refusal, and offending behaviours – Winston’s Wish claims that 41% of young offenders have been bereaved in their childhood.
The frightening thing is that this affects large quantities of children. In an average secondary school, the number of children who will have lost someone is 33 – that’s the equivalent of one whole class within that school.
There are several different ways that discussion about death can be encompassed into a school curriculum. In my presentation I mentioned two specific strategies, both of which I learned about when the NAFD hosted a roundtable event as part of the Bereavement in Childhood project.
The first of these is integration. Children have a natural curiosity about death and this can be used to include the topic in everyday learnings about other matters. So, for example, children learning about ancient Egyptians would talk about mummies, and this could include discussion about why some people have rituals about death, and how this might (or might not) help them when someone dies. Discussions about lifecycles of animals could include dying and what happens to bodies after death. The advantage of this is that it normalises death. Much research I have heard about (including from papers presented at the Conference, and the Cambridge University research) discusses how children are imaginative and create their own realities. This is not always helpful, for example, children sometimes come to believe someone might not die – or might not stay dead – if they are well-behaved. Normalising ideas around dying helps prevent this.
The second is having a death-focussed programme as part of the curriculum. At our roundtable, we heard about a Sex Education programme called ‘Spring Fever’, based on a successful Dutch model. This model introduces age-appropriate content over time and is very translatable to talking about death. Children can be introduced to the topic of loss first, by talking about how they’d feel if their favourite toy went missing, or about missing people by asking them to think about family members they don’t see very often.
Most schools don’t have a bereavement policy and many teachers say they are not confident about the best way to support a pupil who has experienced a death. I feel that the introduction of strategies such as those outlined above would not only help children unfortunate enough to be bereaved, but the cohort as a whole, who would be used to talking about death more widely as they grew up, and so would support them when they had their own families.
There was an opportunity to make death education compulsory in schools when the government announced an overhaul of the PHSE regime last year. In my paper, I explained the purpose of PHSE in supporting children with issues which will affect them and its aims to prepare them for life as adults in 21st-century Britain. PHSE would be the ideal place to include a death-specific curriculum, such as one based on Spring Fever. From 2020, the Sex and Relationship Education aspect of PHSE is becoming compulsory for all schools. The NAFD, together with many other bereavement groups, felt that this was an ideal opportunity to have learning about the end of life, as well as the start of it, enshrined in law. However, the statute does not include this, and so provision will continue to be ad-hoc and – as at the moment – schools may have to (to an extent) rely upon charities in helping them with this important issue.
In my paper I discussed one of Child Bereavement UK’s courses for teachers. The aims (which include how to draft a bereavement policy) are laudable but, considering everything we know about how being well-supported can make all the difference when a child is bereaved, it does seem shocking that there is no compulsion upon schools to have anything in place for when these eventualities arise.
My paper was well-received and led to some brilliant discussion. The organisers of the conference were delighted to see a funeral director attend in a professional, rather than academic, capacity (there were colleagues from other businesses present but typically they were undergoing a programme of academic study which had led to their attendance) and I hope to be able to attend further events in future and perhaps, dependent on topic, present again with a focus on Freeman Brothers and the work we do every day in supporting and engaging with our local communities.
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