Children who are familiar with death have greater respect for life and living things

Marie-Ange ABRAS (CRISE)
publié dans Janvier 2001 : ABRAS  Marie-Ange. « Children who are familiar with  death have greater respect for life and living things ». Hospice  Bulletin, volume 8, n°4, Saint Christopher s Hospice, January  2001, Grande-Bretagne, p. 3.  


The basis of my research is my experience as a nurse and former teacher in palliative care, and my scientific work is based on Research-Training (1), which follows a rigorous, experiential methodology. I have noticed how much damage is caused by hiding death from children, affecting their overall health, sometimes until the end of their lives.

Children encounter death any time from birth onwards, and later they will hear, among other subjects, of euthanasia and palliative care, which has only recently become a subject for the media. However, even if considerable efforts have been made in hospitals, what is missing is the aspect ‘before death’, which means taking action before emotional difficulties arise, especially as talking about many things opens up other subjects, and helps to develop a global view of life in general. The thing is that when a child starts asking about death because he has been bereaved or the subject has come up at school, teachers (in the majority of cases) do not always know how to reply or deal with the child’s needs. To carry out my field-study, I set up twelve groups in ‘Existential Research-Training’ on the subject of death, with children aged between six and twelve.

An outline of Existential Research-Training.

I suggested setting up an Existential Research-Training group to attempt to solve the problem of death in schools; on another occasion I was specifically asked to come in after a child had died. Eventually we had twelve groups running, both in Paris and in the Yonne Département. The educational aim, working as a team, was to arrange weekly children’s sharing groups on the topic of death, with children who had not yet encountered such emotional difficulties, so that they would be better prepared to face life.

The results.

The results showed up in the attitude of the school teachers, since they set about training themselves to respond to children’s needs for teaching on death, which confirmed my initial hypotheses, namely that educating people about death in a way that gives greater meaning to life can be included in the school curriculum: both children and adults found ways to resolve the issue of how to face death.
On the whole, the children aged six and seven got into the subject quite naturally. They had been wondering about many aspects of death and life, since by nature they are very inquisitive. What they shared particularly about was that they had received little information about death from adults, the contrast between the reality of death and the usual image of death in TV and films, and their need to talk about what happens after death.
As for the older children (between eight and twelve), although they attended the group meetings ? and there was no obligation to do so ? they were torn between what they hear around them, such as “You mustn’t talk about death, you’re too young”, and what they actually feel. In practical activities like painting, do-it-yourself and drawing, the children’s creativity led to many interesting revelations, because they felt free to express how they felt about taboo subjects such as suffering, violence and crime.
The extent of the children’s interest shows up in the very nature of the questions they ask, and in the way they take up the challenge of confronting and understanding death. After my sessions with them, it was noticeable that the children not only were able to talk openly about death while getting their bearings on it and grasping its existential meaning, but displayed even more aliveness afterwards. In addition, the children who became more comfortable with death showed greater respect for life and living things, which is useful when it comes to basic health measures and a philosophy for living. Apart from these changes, this research has triggered discussion outside the school, as well as having an effect on other professionals involved in children’s education and healthcare.


In order to reinstate death in our societies it is important for death to be approached from an educational angle, and as soon as children start wondering about life and death. Thanks to these groups, they were able to talk spontaneously about death at school with their usual teachers and in their families, which will enable us all, in time, to change the way we see death in Western societies.


(1) cf. René Barbier. La Recherche-Action. Editions Anthropos, 1996, Paris.

Photo : Marie-Ange Abras, a researcher at the Centre de Recherche sur l’Imaginaire Social et l’Education [Research Centre into Social Images and Education] de l’Université Paris VIII.

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