Teaching children to understanddeath and grieving

Marie-Ange Abras, Co-founder and President of the Organisationfor Research into Children and Death (ORME), Researcher in Education Sciencesassociated to the Centre de Recherchesur l’Imaginaire Social et l’Education (CRISE), Paris, France.

Marie-Ange Abras  presents the case for bereavementeducation for children within the French curriculum

Society generally associates serious illness with death,and the grieving experience with the loss of a loved one. Generally, itviews palliative care favourably, as the aim of such care is to allow sickpeople to die with dignity and without suffering. There are many philosophersand poets who have been inspired by death to see some sense in life.

In the same way that sex education forms an integral partof education about death should be given as an integral part of life’seducation. The importance attached to death in children’s stories and gamesshows us the extent to which the subject interests them. In addition, fewschools are spared the death of a pupil, and many pupils are directly affectedby events that, to a greater or lesser extent, traumatise them.

The place for death in French schools

Due to the climbdown by the religious authorities, thesubject of death is no longer touched on in French schools. Education,by ceasing to answer the existential questions that children ask, has tobe filled. Although ‘crisis cells’ have been set up to help bereaved children,there is nothing to meet children’s educational needs on the subject ofdeath. Educational establishments are, therefore, becoming more and morereceptive to the idea of taking action before death strikes, but, at present,nothing is provided to prepare children for changes in their situations.

In 1999, I set up a number of discussion groups in schoolsin the Paris region for children aged six to 12. These groups allowed thechildren to touch on the therme of death before a crisis occurred; andtheir main aim was to provide support for children, who often suffer isolationduring the grieving period, and to give them answers to their questionson the subject of death. The desired result was to prevent the complicationsof grief, and to give the children strength to face future losses. Thegroups also helped train teaching professionals to respond to children’squestions on issues of meaning and direction in a helpful and educationalway.
The main aim of increasing awareness is to discuss deathwith children before a tragic event occurs, and to prepare them for changesin relationships. This allows children to identify the emotions that theyfeel when grieving, and to look on what they are living through as normal.Pupils expressed and verbalised their anger at being all too often sidelinedwhen confronted with the grieving process in a family or school situation.The children were on a quest for truth, and talked about the subject ofdeath in the family and at school.

The place for death in British schools

In the UK, in November 1999, former Education MinisterDavid Blunkett introduced into the schools timetable a period of reflectionon matters of death and grieving. Training programmes have been set up,and education on death and grieving is compulsory in schools since September2002. Voluntary workers from specialist bereavement organisations, andmembers of the religious community, have offered to train teachers in mattersof death and grief. This training will be particularly useful as teachershave complained that they are not sufficiently informed in view of thecomplexity of the subject to be covered with the children.
Although some teachers are undergoing the training, othersare relying on their own skills in the subject.
Death, bereavement and the grieving process are partof the school curriculum, being a guiding principle of the Personal, Socialand Health Education (PSHE) programme.1 This programme helps to give childrenthe Knowledge, understanding and skills required to live and independent,secure and healthy life. The children are asked to reflect on their experiencesof death and on the overall theme, and to identify their emotions in connectionwith each stage of the grieving process. According to the directives onthe PSHE programme, ‘Pupils aged from 11 to 14 years will learn to recognisethe various emotional stages of the grieving process and the changes broughtabout by death, divorce, separation and the arrival of new family members,and will learn how to adapt to the changes in circumstances’.2,3 Thereare many recommendations aimed at ensuring that children are supportedduring the crisis period, and are helped to prepare themselves for changesin relationships with friends and family.

And educational gap
In France, matters for thought that do not form an officialpart of the school curriculum are usually ignored. However, the subjectof death can be touched on in biology, history or literature lessons. TheBritish have understood the importance of including the subject of deathand grieving in the school curriculum to help and educate children. Wehope that decision-makers in France will react and fill this ‘educationalgap’ by working together with bereaved children and helping them to preparefor the accompanying changes in life. Children who can talk about deathand grieving outside the context of a traumatic event will be better equippedto deal with death and grief, as they will have already shared and verbalisedtheir experiences and emotions in a group context.

1. Abras M-A. Death awareness projects in England. Frontières2000; 13: 55-56.
2. Abras M-A. Death education in schools. Education Santé2001; 163: 5-7.
3. Department of Education and Skills. A teacher’s guideto personal, social and health education. London: The Stationery Office,1999.