Should death and grief be taught in schools? More than 2 in 5 Australians think so (43%), according to Bare’s *Funeral Opinions and Industry Study of 1,000 Australians.
I agree, too.
That's because my first experience with death was attending the funeral for the father of my Grade 1 teacher. That prepared me well to accept death as a natural progression of life.
I went to a Catholic primary school where prayer and ceremony were a big part of the curriculum. So, as a six-year-old kid, it didn’t seem odd to me that the entire class hopped on the school bus to attend a field trip to a church funeral.
I don’t remember all that much about the ceremony itself, but I do remember seeing the closed coffin and observing my teacher’s grief. After the service ended, fighting back the tears, she thanked the class as a group and appeared grateful to have us supporting her on that difficult day.
Despite being so young and not knowing her dad personally, I was still able to process the magnitude of death and the impact the stranger’s passing had on my teacher.
I remember her taking some leave from teaching after that, but as a youngster, I didn’t have much concept of time to recall how long she was away. What I do remember is that the relief teacher had us each make a card to pass on to her. I took a bright yellow sheet of paper and drew flowers on the front, hoping the colours would lift her spirits.
Normalising death prepares kids for life
The funeral normalised the end-of-life journey for me. It helped me to understand death and grief. It lifted the veil on an important topic that many adults find too uncomfortable to talk about, yet affects us all at some point.
My experience, at such an early age, also prepared me for the losses of family members and friends that would come as I grew older. I didn’t know at the time, but before I turned 30 I would experience the death of my three remaining grandparents; my father; a friend my own age; and a stillborn in my extended family.
Attending the funeral at school helped me to understand the finality of life when those people died. It planted the seed that grew the emotional intelligence to not only help cope with grief, but also understand how I might support others on their grief journey as well.
When a person is grieving the loss of a loved one, people often don’t know how to support them. The sad consequence is that the bereft are often left to grieve without their support network, at a time when they truly need comfort. More than a quarter of Australians (27%) admitted to avoiding friends or family who has lost someone because it's too uncomfortable, Bare’s study also found.
As a society, we need to do better to support one another in our grief. Read our article How to comfort a friend after a death for some tips.
Death is the only sure bet in life. So it’s time that we stop sweeping it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t happen. The sooner we accept death as a natural part of life, the more peaceful will our grief journey be and the better we can support others on theirs.
Normalising death, grief and 'death positivity' from an early age is an important step towards preparing for life’s great losses as we get older. I’ve seen first-hand how beneficial it is to have open and honest conversations with the younger generation about life and death. I have no doubt that my early experience was the foundation for my realistic and healthy view of mortality, which in turn helped me to cope with some of the biggest tragedies of my life.
Children are more resilient than we give them credit for, so let’s start being honest with them about death.
Psychologists agree that it’s important to use concrete language with children when talking about death. So instead of saying that the family pet has run away when they have been put down, be honest. Likewise, telling a youngster that Grandma has “passed away” or is “sleeping” can be confusing.
Our article How to talk to children about death offers more tips.
It’s time to get real with our kids. Schools have a big part to play in normalising death and grief. Families also play an important role in that conversation, too.
*Bare’s Funeral Opinions and Industry Study was conducted by Pure Profile in November 2021 and is nationally representative of a sample of 1,000 Australians aged 35 and over (general population).