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Updated 31 March 2016

How should we help children understand death?

Cybershrink disagrees with the way some schools react when a pupil dies.

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In our grandparents’ day, sex was the taboo topic you should not talk about to children. Nowadays, however, most parents aren’t that spooked about talking about sex and tend to be more uncomfortable with answering questions about death.

Death 'tidied up'

In earlier times children were familiar with the facts of death. Death was part of the natural order and they witnessed many deaths first hand. Families were often very large and many children died young. Sometimes two or more children would get the same name as it wasn’t expected that they’d all reach adulthood. Religion, which played a large role in people’s lives, also didn’t shy away from death.

Sex just wasn’t talked about, and unless children grew up on farms where it could be witnessed among animals they would grow up knowing very little about it.

Read: Sex education – why and how?

Nowadays things are reversed. Death has been tidied up and is often out of sight, happening not at home, but in hospitals or hospices. Children are shielded from death and don’t witness the process.

With unrestricted access to the internet, kids can view sex of all kinds and don’t regard it as anything out of the ordinary. But although they see death portrayed on TV and on DVD’s often many times a day, this is also tidy and sanitised. They may also see the same actor or actress in a different film or series shortly afterwards, which suggests that death isn’t permanent.  

Yet there’s been a curious growth of secular customs, especially in the case of a dramatic and well-publicised death. Spontaneous shrines may be created at the road-side in the case of an accident.  Originally some flowers were left at the scenes of tragic deaths, but now there may be great piles of flowers, candles, written messages to the dead person or people, even teddy bears, team scarves and shiny helium-filled balloons. The exact purpose of this is obscure. Do the messages imply a belief in an after-life in which the deceased manages to read them? And who is expected to play with the fluffy toys and balloons?

What happens in schools?

These thoughts came to me while I was reading reports on how Randfontein Primary School responded to the murder of one of its pupils. I have no doubt that she was a lovely child, but with the usual hyperbole, the way teachers described the child made her sound like something between and angel and a saint. Such comments say more about the feelings of the speaker than the characteristics of the deceased. 

Read: How a murderer's mind works

A counsellor was said to have used a puppet show to explain the concept of death to her Grade 3 classmates. Then, after the puppet show each learner was given a white piece of paper with glitter and colouring crayons, and had to draw their idea of Kayla in heaven. The teacher was described as “fighting back tears”, and said “she tried to end every school day with the learners sharing a positive thought of Kayla”. The school will hold a memorial service at which they plan to release balloons and plant a tree in her memory. These are common and even traditional reactions, but they worry me somewhat, as they’re likely to be far less useful or necessary than the adults are assuming.  

Way back

When I was at school I can only remember three occasions where death was an issue. The first was in primary school, when the King of England died.  We were told of his death during morning assembly and told we had the day off, which, was welcomed by all and upset nobody. A few years later our Headmaster died, and this was handled in the same way. We were a little more upset, but none of us felt at all close to this distant and rather grim figure, and we again got the day off, but there were no balloons or fluffy bunnies. 

In high school, the brother of one of our classmates died suddenly in what we were told was an accident while cleaning a hunting gun. We felt very sympathetic towards our classmate, who was given a week off school. When he returned, we were again considerate, but instinctively did not talk about what happened. None of us suffered any psychological damage as far as I can remember.

Read: Suicide warning signs

What’s wrong with these interventions?

But let’s return to the elaborate ceremonies some modern schools indulge in when one of their pupils dies.

Firstly it involves applying a quasi-therapeutic intervention to all of a large group of children, irrespective of whether or not they need it. It’s as though after a nasty school meal, teachers, in order to prevent food poisoning, insist that every child in the school must receive antibiotics, or a stomach pump. There’s no expert assessment to establish whether any child needs anything at all. 

It’s entirely sensible to tell children tactfully what happened (to reduce the power of rumours), and to offer a chance for them to see a teacher if they feel worried, and to enable the teacher to refer any genuinely troubled child to an actual counsellor. 

Read: Qualities of an effective counsellor

If any assistance is needed, why apply the same intervention for the whole group? Children react individually to situations in life. If a child is encountering problems, any help received should be individually tailored, rather than bought in wholesale from a handy counsellor with puppets. Isn’t it also avoiding actual reality to have the puppets depict animals rather than people or children, and to speak of the animal having “passed away” instead of having died?

It is really not at all sensitive to the needs of children to automatically assume they need help; children have over the ages shown themselves to be awesomely resilient and adaptive, even during war and natural disasters. Conveying to them the implication that they’re not expected to be able to cope, and really need elaborate hand-holding, doesn’t foster coping. 

Presupposing a belief in heaven

It may seem common sense to provide help even to those who seem fine, assuming it can’t do any harm. But that’s not actually true. Good research evaluating a popular and much-hyped method (CISD) used by banks and other companies when anything remotely upsetting was suspected of upsetting their staff,  found that people not getting the intervention did better than those who received it.

It also fails to respect the explanations offered by a child’s individual, family and community cultures and may clumsily tread on these. Is it really sensitive to impose an assignment that pre-supposes a belief in “heaven” and the assumption that their class-mate is now residing there? What if this is in conflict with what some parents have told their child? 

Read: Bereavement counselling

The children will probably have had widely varying relationships with the dead child. Some may have been special friends, some merely acquaintances, some may not have even noticed her, and some may actually have disliked her.  That’s real life. Assuming that they all adored her, and are all devastated by her loss, over-simplifies reality,  and may make the children who don’t conform to the teachers’ stereotypes feel there’s something wrong with them.

Hyperbole isn’t helpful, either. Emphasising what a magnificently holy and wholly perfect child their dead colleague was can also have unwholesome consequences.  All children are wonderful, but many don’t feel that way.  It may make other children feel inadequate, or even conclude that the only way to achieve such unreserved praise and adulation is by dying, and not by their own more useful living achievements. 

What is a better way to deal with these issues? Stepping in only when a situation has reached crisis proportions is not wise. That’s like looking for a plumber online when the water’s already lapping at your feet. With death, as with sex, it’s best to start early on with an ongoing series of conversations with your child, as their worldview and questions develop, so they can feel secure and able to discuss whatever issues may arise.

Read more:

Useful techniques in bereavement counselling

Neurosurgeon says there is life after death

How the mind counters death

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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