First published by the Guardian on Tuesday 18 February 2014.
When I was 15 years old my mother died. She passed away over the summer holiday, which meant I didn’t have to deal with the initial aftermath of her death at school. My father had been open about the seriousness of her illness and my brother and I were aware that it was terminal. My close friends were also aware of what was happening and it didn’t seem to cause any awkwardness amongst us.
Nonetheless, when school started in September some of my teachers acted a little weird around me. I remember my English teacher grabbing my arm and staring at me intently – looking for some kind of reassurance that I was ok. My form tutor became teary eyed when we briefly mentioned the almost taboo subject of my mother’s funeral. I was also very appreciative of the light touch approach towards my misdemeanours and laziness.
It dawned on me that adults found dealing with a bereaved child pretty daunting. In later life, I feel that most people have an emotional aversion to tackling issues associated with death, dying and bereavement. In a similar vein, the sociologist Philippe Ariès believed that we live in a death-denying society that is reluctant to confront the basic fact that death is unavoidable.
Teaching about matters of death can be a scary prospect for teachers, mostly because it doesn’t allow for any conclusive answers. Whether one looks for a philosophical, religious, ethical or even cultural argument for what happens after death, there’s no definitive answer acceptable to all. The only real empirical evidence we have of death is that life ends.
But death is a fact of life and crops up in all manner of subjects – from literature to science. It’s also something that inevitably affects us all and should be part of every child’s education.
My students are confronted with the issue of death in religious studies; they discuss what death is, debate whether there is an afterlife and consider the arguments for and against euthanasia. The topic really engages students, gets them thinking and, of course, disagreeing. Although there are many reasons why students benefit from the study of death, some of these can be categorised into three broad themes.
The first is philosophical. How to approach death, especially what may happen after, is an eternal question that has bugged humanity throughout history. From the basic beliefs of the Abrahamic religions that an eternal soul transcends to a paradise or hell, to the Eastern emphasis on reincarnation and rebirth, there’s a rich history of ideas to be explored. Add to this the challenge of atheism, a lack of evidence for an afterlife and the concept of oblivion, and students have a real chance to develop their imaginative and critical thinking skills while learning about other cultures and traditions.
The second reason is ethical. Death is controversial and embodies a plethora of emotionally-charged issues, such as the right approach to palliative care, assisted-suicide and passive euthanasia. Students will be exposed to these issues through the media, perhaps even personally, at some stage in their life and will inevitably have questions about them. Of course, teachers do not necessarily have the answers, but they can provide a starting point by explaining why these issues are highly sensitive and so often debated by social commentators, faith groups and politicians.
The third and final reason is practical. People panic, overreact or get overprotective when death occurs, gets mentioned or becomes apparent. The bereaved often recount how friends avoided them or people became overly emotional when they were trying to get back to some semblance of normality. This aversion to facing up to death obviously causes more problems than it solves and arguably results in death’s taboo status in our culture. Perhaps addressing this social awkwardness through education could go some way to making discussion about death more open, more rational and less daunting.
I’m not advocating that teachers deal with individual pupils’ bereavement, which is best left to family, friends or trained professionals. But I do think that death is an extremely difficult subject to deal with socially and schools at both primary and secondary level should not shy away from teaching about it.
Some hospices are leading the way with initiatives such as the Larch Group, which brings together students and patients to explore issues surrounding hospice care and death. In schools, however, there’s little overt discussion of death beyond the religious studies curriculum and it could be argued that the topic should feature more in PSHE and spiritual, moral, social and cultural provision, and even other curriculum subjects, if we are to become less fearful of dealing with death, dying and bereavement.
Photo credit: Adrian Pingstone (Creative Commons 2.0)