The importance of talking about death and dying in schools - Dying Matters Awareness Week

One of the ‘difficult’ subjects that Think2Speak counsellors, trainers and the team as a whole have to talk about with the young people who access our services is helping them come to terms with a loved one coming to the end of their lives or passing away suddenly. According to statistics compiled by The Child Bereavement Network, around 1 in 29 students aged 5-16 have been bereaved at some point in their childhood of a parent or sibling and 75% of 11-16 year olds have lost someone close to them.[1]

Grief has an inevitable effect on the emotional well-being of children and young people, especially those who have lost a parent. Research suggests that “two years after their parent died, children and young people still have significantly lower self esteem (levels) than their peers and feel less able to effect change”[2].

Think2Speak believes it is vital that parents, teachers, youth workers, social workers, mental health professionals and others who work with children and young people feel able and willing to discuss dying, death and bereavement with them and have the skills they need to help support children and young people effectively when they lose a loved one. Adults find it very difficult to talk openly about their thoughts on death and dying primarily because we live in a “death-denying society” that still finds it difficult to accept the inevitability of death. It can be scary for teachers to start discussing the topic because there is no concrete, conclusive answer to give students – there's no scientific formula that has been conclusively adopted as truth.

There are lessons within the National Curriculum where discussions of death and dying can and should be facilitated. Religious Education (RE) should include information about rituals and rites of passage and how they differ in religious traditions and that includes talking about death and dying. For example, Shariah law dictates that Muslims should be buried as soon as possible from the time that a person has died, with Salat-al-Janazah (funeral prayers) performed by all members of the local faith community[3] whereas in the Buddhist tradition there is no set date for a funeral to take place but most Buddhists will be cremated (as the Buddha himself was cremated) around 4 days after death[4].

RE provision can be patchy as the curriculum is decided at Local Authority level and children may only be taught about one or two examples of funeral rites. Some students may not get to hear about these rites altogether, being withdrawn from lessons by parents on the basis of their own beliefs. There should be time available in RE lessons to discuss the ethical and philosophical dimensions – whether there is an afterlife, whether euthanasia or assisted dying is acceptable or even why society still openly avoids talking about death.

Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) provides space to talk about death and dying and the affect that grief and bereavement may have on mental health. Most schools teach PSHE but there is no standard statutory PSHE curriculum and teachers may reduce the amount of time they spend on talking about death and  dying because they wish to avoid talking about the subject themselves. This is unfortunate considering the duty that every school has under Section 78 of the Education Act 2002 to provide a curriculum to students which prepares them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life[5].

PSHE lessons at Key Stage 3 should include discussions on what happens legally when a person dies (including the concept of probate), understanding how different communicates perform different rituals when someone they love dies (religious or otherwise) and to also understand the practicalities of organising and budgeting one's own funeral.

Addressing the social awkwardness around death in school through PSHE lessons could help to make discussions easier amongst adults and families in the future. Schools could look to partner with organisations including local hospices (in Lincolnshire schools could partner with St Barnabas Hospice) and religious organisations to deliver lessons on death and bereavement in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. 

Teachers will face situations where they will have to talk to students about the death of a fellow student or another member of staff. It can be a test of their own emotional resilience and it is important that teachers provide time for their own self-care so they can process their own feelings of grief and loss and be in the right frame of mind to help students in the class. Teachers should not adopt a “one size fits all” approach; instead they should allow every student space to talk about (or draw about) the person they have lost. Breaking the news to a student that a loved-one has died is one of the hardest conversations and requires compassion, tact and great sensitivity. Having a Bereavement policy in place can help schools to provide teachers with a structured procedure to follow: i.e. making sure the students are prepared for the devastating, life-changing news they are about to receive, making sure the room is quiet and ensuring that the pastoral team is ready to provide comprehensive support to the class for example ensuring they do not travel home alone after school. The Bereavement policy should also include “the contact details of local organisations to support children, and how to recognise common symptoms and behaviours associated with grief”[6].

The class could create a memory jar to remember the student or staff member who has passed away which can be added to as and when the students feel they want or need to. The memory jar can then be opened when students indicate they want to talk about or remember the person and this should be facilitated within lessons wherever possible, especially for primary school students. Some students may cry during lessons, whereas other students may express their grief through silence or repressing the sorrow that they feel. It is important that teachers do not use insensitive language at this time - for example, never telling a child to “cheer up” or “stop crying” whilst they are in the process of grieving. The key thing is for teachers to ensure that their students know that they are there to support them for as long as they need or want that support.

Children will react differently to grief dependent on age. Children aged 6-9 may understand that death is an irreversible process and may talk about “death as something spooky, like a zombie or spirit come to get you”[7]. They may ask questions relating to body state and the information given to them should be factual but not overwhelming[8]. Children aged 9-13 will be much more aware of the impact the death has had on family members and think about the long-term consequences of no longer having a parent or sibling in their lives which can lead to severe effects on their emotional state and self-esteem levels[9]. Adolescents may struggle to vocalise their feelings and may withdraw from activities with family or friends.[10] Teachers need to ensure that they promote the emotional well-being of students as well as monitoring their academic attainment and follow existing school policies and procedures when they feel a student requires additional support.

As the statistics quoted earlier demonstrate, it can take students months or years to go through the grieving process. A pastoral team committed to promoting the emotional well-being of every child in a school will be able to provide additional support to students who are struggling to process their grief, to be there for the student whose feelings of anger are based in the hurt of losing their best friend to leukaemia in the year they are meant to take their Key Stage 3 SATs, or the student whose self-esteem levels have decreased dramatically following the death of their favourite English teacher. A common saying that has persisted in discourse is that “Time heals all wounds”. But this is simply not the case. Time may reduce the level of grief and sense of loss but it does not go away altogether. Providing students with self-care tips or one-to-one counselling can help but it takes time to rebuild emotional resilience and each person's rebuilding process differs from one another.

Dying Matters Awareness Week was started with the aim of raising public awareness about the importance of encouraging people to be more open to talking about dying, death and bereavement. Results of a ComRes survey released to coincide with Dying Matters Awareness Week in 2016 found that only 64% of respondents said that they felt comfortable discussing death with loved ones and 25% of them had asked a family member about their end of life wishes[11]. By encouraging staff and students to talk about death and dying as a central part of comprehensive, informative RE and PSHE lessons and by putting in place effective Bereavement policies to detail the procedures that can be followed to support students who are bereaved, we can begin to change the narrative and remove some of the stigma around the act of talking about death and dying. Think2Speak are proud to be part of this process and will continue to work with partner schools and organisations based in Lincolnshire and beyond to spread the vital message behind the Dying Matters Awareness Campaign.


[1]   Child Bereavement Network Child Bereavement Network response to Children and Young People's Mental Health-role of education

[2]   Child Bereavement Network Child Bereavement Network response to Children and Young People's Mental Health-role of education

[3]   Everplans Muslim Funeral Traditions

[4]   The Buddhist Society Buddhist Funerals

[5]   Summers, Karen PSHE Association Change, loss and bereavement (July 2014)

[6]   Cruse Bereavement School bereavement policy

[7]   Winston's Wish Schools Information Pack (2017)

[8]   Winston's Wish Schools Information Pack (2017)

[9]   Winston's Wish Schools Information Pack (2017)

[10] Winston's Wish Schools Information Pack (2017)

[11] Dying Matters Dying Matters Awareness Training