Death in the classroom: what can teachers do?

Gerald Haigh

Recognise that children react to bereavement in different ways - for example, withdrawal, anger, panic, fear, inattention. Age is a factor. Young infants find it difficult to see death as permanent. Older infants and younger juniors gradually become aware of the finality of death, and may be curious about the details. Older juniors and secondary pupils begin to see death as adults do.

u Tackle the issue. Tim Gisborne, a primary teacher on secondment to the grief support group Winston's Wish, strongly believes that, "Saying nothing gives the message that this major event is not important; that the teacher cannot do anything; that everything is hopeless.''

Grace Jordan, of the Dove Centre, says the same. "You can't do any harm if you address it, even if only to say privately that you know what's happened and that you are there if needed.''

The support pack from Winston's Wish says,"Obtain the permission of the bereaved child before informing them [the rest of the group], then tell them in the presence of the bereaved child."

The NSPCC says a key principle is to help the bereaved "through the pain rather than trying to remove or avoid it". A child's class may want to help in practical ways - by sending a card or writing a letter. "Encourage them not to avoid friends out of embarrassment."

u Do not be too ready to believe that a child is recovering well. Grace Jordan of the Dove Centre explains that "because adults are uncomfortable with their own distress, they want the child to be OK, and they say things like 'He's coping wonderfully', without enquiring whether he is crying at night, or protecting the feelings of adults."

It may take a child months even to accept what has happened. The word "numb'' comes up frequently in their descriptions.

u Give honest answers. Grieving children deserve them. Don't be embarrassed to use the word "death''. The support pack from Winston's Wish says, "Phrases such as 'lost', 'sleeping', 'gone away' imply that the dead person chose to go somewhere without the child, and the child may think it was their fault."

Some of the children who meet at Sunrise, a child bereavement centre in the West Midlands, wrote to the local crematorium because they wanted to know exactly what happened there.

u Include death in the curriculum. Oliver Leaman, with other people working in this field, strongly believes that schools should teach about death, just as they teach about sex, birth and marriage. "It is remarkable that this common feature of humanity, the fact that we will all eventually die, is entirely ignored by schools.''

There is lots of international experience. High school courses in the US deal with death; Israel includes death education in its teacher training.

Advice from the group Compassionate Friends reminds teachers how even the youngest children can be told about death. "Use such opportunities as a fallen leaf, a wilted flower, the death of an insect, bird or class pet to discuss death as part of the life cycle," it says. "Talk together as a classroom family."

The NSPCC says, "Learning to deal with loss is a natural part of growing up."

u Put it on the training agenda. It is a mistake to believe that there are no resources to help teachers. Some of the available books and resource packs are listed elsewhere in this article, and each of them has its list of publications and support agencies.

The agencies will sometimes send trainers out to schools - ask about this.What is lacking is not so much resources as the will to tackle the subject. Grace Jordan, for example, finds that while heads may acknowledge that there is a need for training in death and bereavement, "it's not a big priority, so they ask me to do an hour in a twilight session when you really need several days".

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