A path to healthier discussion: introducing bereavement, death and grief onto the curriculum

Annabelle Shaw, programme director at Project Eileen, a charity helping young people tackle the topics of death and grief, talks about the impact of implementing the topic onto the school curriculum and the potential benefit to mental health

Bereavement, death and grief are a part of life, even for young people and yet society struggles to discuss the topic openly or sometimes even at all. This perpetuates the longstanding stigma attached to death, which does a significant disservice to society as a whole.

Breaking this stigma is key and by introducing the topic into the curriculum alongside other life topics, we can give young people the tools and life skills to help themselves and others now and in their future lives.

The case for covering bereavement, death and grief in the curriculum

One of the most important considerations for introducing the subject and teaching it proactively is the potential benefit to mental health. The taboo associated with death and dying means that people are often unprepared and conversations around the topic are reactive, making it difficult for individuals to cope with and speak about their loss.

Consultant psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes OBE has written in the British Medical Journal that as many as one in three people directly impacted by the death of someone close to them suffers detrimental effects to their physical or mental health, or both.

Preparing students for death in advance ensures that they are familiar with the emotions associated with grief and ways of coping. Giving students the confidence to speak openly about death and grief will help combat the isolation and loneliness that people who have experienced bereavement very often feel. Furthermore, having the opportunity to speak freely about their feelings can play an important role in promoting positive mental health.

Teachers are familiar with handling traditionally difficult subjects, such as sex and drugs, and yet death is inexplicably left off the curriculum. Given that mortality is the only certainty in life, it feels only right it should be included in education.

Bringing the topic into the classroom

Like most of us, teachers find discussing death difficult. This is a hurdle that can be overcome by giving schools access to comprehensive resources which provide the information and confidence needed to teach about bereavement and grief.

Rather than relying on reactive measures, which only consider those who have been directly impacted by death, opening the conversation proactively in lessons, such as those offered by Project Eileen, allows teachers to navigate the conversation confidently and sensitively with all their students.

When broaching the topic, it is imperative to understand that everyone’s experience will be varied, and some students will be more sensitive than others. To avoid causing anxiety or worry, a helpful approach is to use fictional characters to stimulate discussion and provide distance from personal experience.

For example, the Project Eileen Programme centres around a story, Eileen, about a group of teenagers and how they and their school community deal with the death of a friend as well as other losses. The story can then be used as a springboard to explore the subject.

Teachers can find numerous organisations to turn to for specific help when covering this topic particularly for students who have been bereaved, many of which have been signposted in the Project Eileen Programme.

Despite the subject of death being challenging, and for some personally upsetting, by introducing the topic in the classroom in a proactive way, we can work to break the stigma.

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