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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Life, death and bereavement – Why students need lessons in mortality

Schools can help address the impact of bereavement on students’ education by tackling the stigma that still surrounds discussion of death, says Louise Poffley

Louise Poffley
by Louise Poffley
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Death and bereavement have long been ‘taboo’ topics for many, but the events of the past two years have sadly put them firmly on the agenda.

As parents and wider society continue looking to schools and teaching staff to provide young people with the knowledge they’ll need for their futures, there’s still a sense that more could be done to help young people deal with the only certainty we all face in life.

A recent survey carried out by Project Eileen found that two thirds of parents in the UK believe schools aren’t currently doing enough to sufficiently prepare young people for life, with finances, sex and death identified as three particular areas of focus.

The findings represent an opportunity for change. Lessons on money and sex have become part of the National Curriculum in recent years, but there’s still little being said at school – or across wider society at large – about death.

Tackling the stigma

It’s common for individuals to not want to delve into their experiences of death, or those of other people – often to avoid awkwardness, or because people don’t know ‘the right thing to say’.

We tend to tread carefully around the subject, and don’t always express ourselves in the ways we need to in order to effectively cope with such significant and life-changing events.

Beyond the pastoral support it can offer individuals, tackling the difficult situations and conversations that surround death head-on could help reduce absence rates and support students’ academic performance.

Our experiences of the pandemic have only heightened the need to support students in responding to complex and challenging life events. By introducing the topic of death to young people and encouraging more openness around it, there’s an opportunity for schools to play a leading role in reducing the stigma that’s come to be associated with the subject.

By breaking this stigma down, we can start preparing young people to not only better manage their own experiences, but also equip them with the skills they’ll need to support peers experiencing similar challenges themselves.

Inclusive solutions

It’s important that any solutions be inclusive and proactive in nature, given that death and grief tend to be encountered in the context of tragic situations.

As a result, bereavement support for young people will usually focus on the individuals most immediately affected, and rarely be extended to friends and others around them. However, this can mean that when they return to school, their teachers and peers will immediately be presented with the challenge of how to handle their reintroduction to classes sensitively and effectively.

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to cope with death. Individuals shouldn’t be discouraged from taking time out should they need to – but without adequate support upon their return, some students may find it hard to concentrate for sustained periods. If their teachers and peers are unsure how to respond, bereaved students can become intensely isolated, potentially giving rise to further absences in future.

This is why the charity Project Eileen was launched. We passionately believe that introducing young people to death and grief can have significant benefits for their lives, both in and beyond school. Our research has found that a majority of parents believe lessons on death and grief should form part of the curriculum, and we are keen to work with schools to make this a reality with the aid of our dedicated multimedia lesson plans.

Start the conversation

There is still a long way to go before we are able, as a nation, to remove the stigma associated with death and bereavement – but there are some steps we can take right now to move things in the right direction.

Young people need opportunities to talk about, and learn how to handle loss. They should feel able to express their emotions, be willing to support one another and know where to turn if they need additional help. Teachers, for their part, also need appropriate support when it comes to caring for students experiencing grief.

In starting this conversation, we can impact students’ lives for the better and enable schools to better cater for their students – not just today, but also in years to come.

Louise Poffley is the founder and CEO of Project Eileen – a charity created to help teachers support students with death; for more information, visit or follow @ProjectEileen

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