Case study: the head

Charlie was my best friend. He always greeted me with gusto. We walked across England together, he listened to my cares and worries, and would have defended me to the death. I was devastated when I learned that he had an incurable heart disease. The few months we spent together after that discovery were precious. When his heart finally gave out, he howled a cry of desolation and then was still. My best mate was a cocker spaniel: daft, lovable and. . . gone.

But he hadn't finished with me yet. We buried him in the garden under his favourite tree. I wrapped him in his blanket, and we added a few of his things to keep him company; a stone; a chewed slipper and a squeaky toy that he would chew when everybody wanted to watch telly. Somehow the toy got to the bottom of the blanket. When I lowered his body into the ground, Charlie's weight made it squeak, and for a split second we thought he'd been having us on, that he would leap up wagging and barking furiously. But that wasn't to be; it was just Charlie having the last word.

The nearest most young children will come to encountering bereavement is the loss of a pet. The incomprehension that such a perfect creature should so swiftly become an inanimate object, and the daunting realisation of what "forever" means, is difficult for anyone to take.

Coping with the death of a person is far harder. Being brought face to face with mortality at any age is a shocking reality - and we cannot stand too much of it. So children subvert their pain and bewilderment in many ways. One of my pupils, who had recently lost her father in tragic circumstances, was on a school trip with us. I was sitting next to her on the coach when I spotted a dead sheep in a field and, in typical "don't mention the war" style, tried to divert her attention. Billie could read me like a book - "Ooh look, a dead sheep," she said. "That reminds me of a poem - Baa baa dead sheep, have you any wool? - No don't be daft - I'm dead." I laughed with her, then she cried.

September 11, 2001, was a day when everyone was brought face to face with death and destruction on a massive scale. How do you cope with such a monstrous event? Certainly not by writing a policy. Our children wrote poetry, some of which we published. Some parents complained, wanting - naturally - to protect their children from fear and anxiety. But how can you ignore such a catastrophe?

In the same way, how can we ignore the disasters that happen to our children throughout the year? By doing what teachers do best: watchful, tender, loving care that no policy can define because it is part of the human condition that binds us together when death comes. We should prepare children to cope with loss and bereavement. We are all of us guilty at times of concentrating too much on what we have to do rather than what we should be doing.

Truly, education is what is left when everything else you learned in school has been forgotten. Death is part of the reality of life. Schools should not be afraid to explore this absolute certainty, for example, within the context of PSHE, drama and personal writing to ensure that reality has its say.

Mick Brookes is head of Sherwood junior school, Nottinghamshire

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