A UK parent dies every 22 minutes – is it time schools taught kids about death?
4th March 2023

When Simon Smith lost his wife eight years ago to brain cancer, the experience was ‘so swift and so brutal’, he didn’t have any time to work out the best way to help his two daughters through the grief of losing their mother, Nicky. 

She fell so ill so quickly, that the family didn’t have time to strategise, he recalls. Instead, Betsy and Tilly, then just eight and six, were thrown in at the deep end. 

It was an unimaginably difficult road to travel; managing the shock, the illness, the death and the loss. 

‘Nicky died within a month of being diagnosed,’ Simon, the 55 year old from Brighton, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘She, me, everyone around us was so completely kiboshed by what was happening, that we just had to kind of run with it. We became instinctual. So actually, the kids went through the whole thing. They were totally present.’

Betsy and Tilly helped Nicky with the practical things; they got their mum dressed, walked her up and down stairs, helped her feed herself and washed her face in her final days. 

Simon remembers: ‘Looking back on it, we all agree now that that was a very positive and productive experience in terms of helping the girls come to terms with losing their mum. There were no secrets.’

In fact, he believes that the authenticity and honesty helped the girls process the grief.

‘I think that having a slightly more pragmatic approach to death and dying is a really good thing,’ explains Simon, who now works as a funeral celebrant. ‘If you try and hide things from kids, at best it can confuse them and at worst it can make them resentful.’

Many believe that we don’t deal with death well in our culture; we talk in euphemisms, people ‘pass away’, or ‘pass on’. It’s a comfort blanket that can make bereavement harder for children to understand, he adds.  

‘People were saying things to the kids like: “She’s looking down on you now, from another place.” The girls would ask: “Where? Where is that place? And if she’s able to look down, then why can’t she come to come and see me?”

‘People think that’s helpful, but if one doesn’t believe in the supernatural, then it’s difficult when people present alternative truths to your children.’

On average, 111 schoolchildren lose a parent every day in the UK, but schools have no formal education on grief and bereavement.

John Adams, President of the National Association of Funeral Directors – and thousands of others – believe more needs to be done to help children prepare for the death of loved ones before it happens, which is why he is leading a campaign to add bereavement to the national curriculum. 

More than 10,000 people have signed John’s online petition calling for age-appropriate education on bereavement. 

John lost his own mother, Maria, to cancer, when he was 12. He remembers: ‘We had really honest conversations at home. But at school my friends weren’t able to communicate with me, because they weren’t sure what to say. It was uncomfortable and awkward. The teachers weren’t sure what to say to me either. I felt uncomfortable being around people, and felt very isolated and lonely. I’m not bitter, and I’m not a victim. But I don’t want people to go through what I went through.’ 

Every 22 minutes in the UK, a parent will die and 80% of people will suffer a close loss by the age of 18, according to the NAFD. Talking about death can be helpful for children and issues of bereavement should be compulsory learning for children in preparation for life as an adult, John believes. 

‘People may argue that this education is exposing kids to unnecessary sadness. But they are already seeing it on films and in the news, and actually, the unknown is what causes problems,’ he explains. ‘Some schools are already teaching this but I would like to see a stable, uniform approach across the UK.’

The resources are already out there with charities like Child Bereavement UK or Project Eileen providing lesson plans. Project Eileen, a charity that talks to young people about death, has created a programme of free, multimedia teaching resources available to all UK secondary schools when they register for the materials via the charity’s website. 

‘My son made a father’s day card at school after his dad had died’

Diane Suthers lost her husband to cancer in 2016 when her children were just one and two. As a teacher, she would like every school to have a curriculum that includes discussions around grief and loss. She says:

‘A popular and misguided opinion that was, and still is, often expressed to me is that the children were so young that “at least it won’t impact them as much,” and “it is lucky they were so young that they won’t remember any different.”

Their grief will never go away and losing their father so young will always present challenges for them both. Grief Encounters West really has been a lifeline for us as a family and all three of us have received one to one therapy from the centre. 

‘Their grief will never go away’ (Picture: Getty Images)

The boys started school a couple of years after losing their dad. Although all the teachers have shown care and nurture, the understanding of potential triggers, or the understanding that a child who presents as ‘fine’ in school may not always be fine, has been inconsistent.

One of my children came home from school, aged six, and presented me with a Father’s Day card which he had made. He shared how sad he was but that he just got on with it and did what the other children were doing.

A simple check-in with him during this activity could have prevented his upset and given him permission to remove himself or to chat with an adult about his feelings. I am very fortunate that the head teacher of the school is open to improving and developing support for bereaved families.’ 

Just six in ten parents have spoken to their children about death and bereavement, with fewer than a third of parents believing that schools play a sufficient role in preparing young people for life events including death, according to the charity.

With lessons and activities addressing the language, associated emotions, history and culture of death and grief as well as the practical necessities, the aim is to teach teens healthy coping strategies and methods for building resilience. Something that Annabelle Shaw has in spades. 

Annabelle, a former teacher who designed the programme for Project Eileen, has experienced grief as a teenager and as a mother. Annabelle, 55, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘What’s amazing is that it has given me huge amounts of resilience. If I’ve got through all this, I can get through anything.’ 

 She wants to use her experience to help young people access the help she needed when she lost her mum in sixth form. 

‘PHSE covers sex education and reproductive health and how we come into the world, but just as important is how we leave it,’ she explains. ‘Having taught PSHE and all sorts of quite controversial topics, I would ask why we skirt around something that’s happening to everybody? If it’s part of the conversation, it stops being so terrifying.’

When her own mother died, Annabelle says she just ‘sort of got on with it’. She carried on working for her exams, and didn’t realise until years later how many people were looking out for her. ‘I had no idea and actually maybe it might have been quite nice to have had a conversation about it,’ she recalls. ‘But actually, I felt very much on my own and my friends didn’t know what to say.’

The loss also meant Annabelle did badly in her exams which had ‘huge repercussions’ throughout her whole life. It was a process she believes she could have had more help with. It wasn’t until she got counselling in her 20s that she could process the grief. Then, in 2014, she lost her husband suddenly. 

‘Everything changed. I can honestly say it’s probably the most terrifying time of my life,’ admits Annabelle. ‘Because suddenly I was the adult I was having to deal with it. Looking back on it, I don’t know whether I handled it terribly well or not.’ 

However, Annabelle’s son’s experience was better than her own; his teachers made sure he was given choices; about when he went back to school after losing his dad, that he had somewhere to go if he was struggling, and they organised him some counselling. 

‘Kids should be taught how to support bereaved friends’

Dr Erin Hope Thompson, clinical psychologist and director of The Loss Foundation, says:

‘Educating young people who are not bereaved to better support those that are is a really key part of us building a culture that makes it possible to talk about loss.

‘Of course this needs to be age appropriate so as not to worry children, many of whom do experience some form of death anxiety. A much more effective way to equip young children is to talk to them about how they can support themselves and/or friends in distress.

‘These are broader teachings around mental health and would outline to young people the types of things they can do if they are struggling, and the ways they can support their friends, if for example they are having a difficult time at home, or had an argument with a friend, or if a pet or a family member die.

‘Essentially we are forewarning young people that sad things can happen and trying to equip them with strategies and the ability to talk about difficult things – rather than avoiding them.’ 

Grief is a process that is never really over. But it does get easier to handle, say the bereaved. Looking back on this loss of his wife, Simon says he is ‘very proud of the way the three of us managed as a little team’ and that talking honestly to his daughters helped. 

‘It was about giving them choice; giving them agency,’ he adds. ‘I didn’t wrap them up in cotton wool; I let them help make the decisions, like where we would scatter mum’s ashes.

‘Nicky was extraordinary. She was unbelievably brave and funny and caring and real. After her death, we survived. I drank too much as I think a lot of people do. But I gradually got myself together. The best thing I did was take the girls on a cycle camping trip across France on a triple tandem.

‘It took us three weeks, from Bordeaux to the Mediterranean. It was therapeutic. We worked stuff out. I realised I was going to have to be mum and dad. So we talked about how we were going to do it. It was pragmatic; I told the girls, we can’t change this, so we’re going to have to find a way through together. It was a really helpful experience.’ 

Grief Encounter aims to provide children and young people support following the death of someone close. Their phone line is open 9am – 9pm 0808 802 0111 and they have grief guides on their website here.

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