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Death in the Classroom: A Resource Book for Teachers and Others by Eleanor Gatliffe

July 21, 2015

DINTCThis subject is still controversial.

Over 25 years ago, a 14-year-old in my tutor group died. I wanted the whole group to go to her funeral but many working-class parents objected. The issue was complicated in that some of the kids had bullied her so there was a lot of guilt floating around. In the end, most of the kids went to the crematorium and the local parish priest did a brilliant job, basing the funeral around the girl’s favourite pop song – Abba’s’ believe in Angels’. (That priest rediscovered his old vocation for teaching. Chucked in parochial ministry and became a school chaplain).

Many years later, a boy of 12 was killed in a road accident. The atmosphere around children and death had changed and I was able to take an RE lesson for his tutor group in which everyone sat in a large circle and could say or ask anything they wanted – why him? Is there life after death?

When a pupil dies, the reaction of those unprepared is often one of incomprehension, mute resentment and shock. The topic can, in the author’s view, be dealt with sensitively only as part of Religious Education.

She begins with a series of general chapters in which she relates the child’s understanding of death to Piaget’s developmental stages: For children at the pre-operational level (about eighteen months to five years) things are as they appear to be…. The child can only grasp the known world; he or she probably assumes that his or her feelings about death are the same as adult emotions and so may try to comfort adults by sharing his or her ideas and feelings with them.

Children at the concrete-operational level (about five to ten years of age) are limited to specific causes and actual or possible occurrences but are able to separate the idea of death from that of their own death or the death of friends and family. Death at this stage is seen as final but far away.

At both the pre-operational and concrete-operational levels, death is often associated with sleep — a sleep which lasts forever. It has actually been reported that some childhood fears about death were focused on the prayer, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’.

The formal-operational level (about eleven onwards) is a stage at which some children are able to express thoughts on death which are comparable with adult ideas. Adolescents begin to express emotions more like the adult ones —            anger, depression — and many express a philosophical interest in the meaning of the concept of death. They may also question social customs or rituals at death

Studies involving older children have shown that fear and thoughts of death have helped us understand other aspects of adolescents’ lives. It appears that the more intelligent and emotionally mature adolescent can deal with the concept of death better than those who have problems in other areas of their lives…. This problem is also related to a fear of abandonment. If a child has experienced the death of a parent, the fear of abandonment may become very real. This in turn may become self-blame, and the fear that the child itself caused the loss or abandonment. Fear of separation is less likely in environments where relationships are stable, although some psychologists say that each of us has such fears deep within our psyche.

Children today are in a strange situation. They live in a time when the sight of natural death has been banished from everyday living, but also in a time when the nuclear bomb, the Nazi holocaust, images of famine and fatal accidents on television have made the prospect of death more imminent than at any time since the plague in the middle ages. They know that death is real, yet often they find it has an awkwardness attached to it; adults may not wish to discuss it. When death occurs, they don’t know what to do…. Another situation which sometimes arises is embarrassment caused by death. I have seen children who have experienced the loss of someone close to them feel somehow singled out by exaggerated attention to the death. This makes them feel embarrassed and as if they are on public display…. Children are not afraid to talk about death. From my own experience I have found they are willing to discuss the topic…. Most of the pupils said that they simply tried to ‘forget death will ever happen to anyone’. This is all very well, but death has a habit of entering our lives without waiting to be asked; we suddenly come face to face with it in a road accident or in the sickness and death of a friend or a member of our family.

The importance of this subject in secular schools is highlighted in some research in which it was shown that the high and intermediate religiosity groups did not differ in security levels, but that both were significantly more secure than the low religiosity group. Williams and Cold believed that their investiga­tion failed to produce any support for the hypothesized Freudian relationship between religion and neurotic inclinations.

In view of this she feels that the subject of death is not one which should be avoided with children, however young they may be. To withhold information about death, or to give false information, especially when a child shows curiosity, may well cause children to come to fear it…. So a discussion of death and beyonds to death would be an invaluable addition to any school syllabus, aiming to help further the child’s understanding of a difficult subject.

We must remember that what we teach our pupils now may help them and, even more significantly, influence them for many years to come.

She summarises the views of death held by major world religions and also lifestyles such as Marxism and humanism: Belief in the survival of death is found in most religions and it is perhaps humanity’s oldest religious conviction. She considers what the goals of a death-education pro­gramme might be. Half the book, however, is devoted to practical sug­gestions on curriculum-content and examples of material for classroom: It is unreal to ignore the topic totally, for it is so much a part of our lives and it is important for children to be given the opportunity to come to understand what beliefs people have with regard to death. By allowing children to study the deepest faith responses to the world in which they live and die, we may encourage them to come to terms with the major problems of living and dying.

In today’s pluralist societies, where faiths are no longer isolated from each other, it is important that we all know about and respect the various beliefs of the major faiths. Children need to be prepared for living in the multi-faith society of which they are already members. In religious studies children can be made aware of the religious understanding of life and their attention can be drawn to the central values such as courage, loyalty and honesty (many of them derived from religion) which society seeks to transmit. Children need to be taught about the transience and mystery of life which so many people perceive — some earlier than others. There is no greater mystery for humanity than death. Insight into life can be gained through reflection upon experiences such as birth, love and death. Only in religious studies can the child be provided with a basis for understanding the search for meaning in life which people have carried on since the beginnings of time.

Examples of this ‘spiritual side of life’ can be found in the story of how Moses encountered God mysteriously in the burn­ing bush, how Isaiah had a vision in the temple, and so on. These experiences may not all be historical, but there is little doubt that prophetic visions were central in the ongoing inter­play between Yahweh and his chosen people. And in the early days of Christianity there is the experience of the apostles when they encountered the risen Christ; this experience transforred their lives. There is, too, the conversion of Paul which vas essential to the spread of Christianity. A similar experience is found in Islam when Muhammed received Allah’s message. Such experiences do not always have to be as ‘earth-shatter­ing’ as those mentioned above. They can occur on a smaller scale to individuals when what we perceive as ‘the divine’ erupts awe-inspiringly into our minds.

Her aims, which she calls goals are: To inform pupils of, and to help them to understand, the facts of death and dying; To help pupils to formulate the socio-ethical issues related to death, and to define the value judgments these issues raise; To inform pupils of, and to help them to understand, the many beliefs and practices concerning death and beyonds to death; To enable pupils to understand the various medical services available and to make them informed consumers of funeral services.

I’d add a grand, over-arching aim: to consider purpose and meaning in life.

Her idea is a topic for 14- to 16-year-odds, to last a term and comprising some thirteen hours of teaching time. The teacher is recommended to write first to parents informing them of the nature of the course—a wise precaution (Though in my experience, they either object and you have to spend hours on the phone to them, or the kids get would up and then feel disappointed because it wasn’t such a big deal after all.) The programme covers topics topics such as life-expectancy and old age, euthanasia and suicide, the death of pets and projects employing literature and the visual arts, death in media. There will be visits—perhaps to a funeral home— and projects employing literature and the visual arts.

This is a valuable approach to a topic which the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, suggested has become a taboo in the way sex once was.

Then again, might a whole term be too morbid and stressful? Might it be better as a topic revisited over different years in a spiral curriculum?

She concludes: I believe that the whole subject of death merits greater attention in our schools. Some believe it is a subject too personal to be dealt with at school and should be left to parents. I believe it is not a subject which can be learned about only at home. The school can be more objective about the subject. The kinds of resources that are available to the teacher are not always available at home. The child who is presented with the facts and different ways of looking e a particular life problem will probably have more flexibility with which to solve the problem.

This is a pioneering work – still today though it was written 27 years ago.

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