The passing of Queen Elizabeth II has had a profound effect across the world. Just as when other celebrities have died, despite not knowing them personally, many are experiencing a sense of loss and a need to grieve.
As with many people in our lives, we feel they will be around forever, until they aren’t. For British citizens she was a pillar of society that formed a constant within the fabric of their culture. For Malta there is a special link, as she spent from 1949 to 1951 happily living here as a young naval wife.
Whatever our feelings, managing grief and the consequence of death is something we all grapple with at some point. Understanding death is a challenging school topic, as it is so deeply personal and dependent on circumstances. An expected death, through old age or illness, can be prepared for, yet a tragic accident, a terrorist attack or sudden illness cannot. All kinds of deaths may lead to insurmountable grief to those left behind as they navigate the pain of loss.
In schools we need to be culturally sensitive, as the family’s context may vary, from not mentioning the dead person’s name, cutting off one’s hair, to a period of quiet mourning. Sadly, parent deaths happen more often than one might expect. Bereavement counselling is always offered, balanced with keeping school as a place of stability.
When someone dies, the world goes fuzzy, it feels like everyone else is functioning at normal speed and you are in slow motion trying to keep up. The routine of school can cushion the child and gradually help them find their feet again. However, as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross points out, “the reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it”, and schools need to maintain that support, as even years later the scar may have healed but the wound remains.
Detailed school information systems can prevent upsetting situations for students, parents or teachers who may have experienced bereavement in the past. We want to help prepare our students with a toolkit that helps them process their feelings throughout this difficult journey.
We want to help prepare our students with a toolkit that helps them process their feelings throughout this difficult journey
Some children are fortunate and go through life without ever attending a funeral, or are protected from the experience of a close death; but some don’t. However, if we make it a taboo subject then we are doing our children a disservice.
Personal, social and health education (PSHE) is the obvious place for this topic; however, there are also other curriculum segues, such as analysis of how people respond to their grief within fiction, outcomes of historical events, or in science, when addressing the cycle of life.
What happens to bodies when they decay may seem radical, but it might give more practical understanding than just seeing someone taken off in an ambulance, never to be seen again. Young people want practical explanations, but they also want social emotional learning (SEL).
Disney has tackled this theme in a few of its films, such as Up and Onwards, and reflecting on them afterwards is a SEL opportunity. This can help children make connections and develop their empathy skills so they can engage appropriately with friends and family, as well as help them recognise their own five stages of grief as they navigate the aftermath of loss.
A few years ago, one of our students, Viti, passed away. It was deeply upsetting to our community as she was taken from us far too young after bravely fighting her illness. Her friends were given a stark reminder that life is not as certain as previously thought.
Death in a school community is dreadfully hard to bear; everyone needs to feel supported in whichever way they need. We offered additional counselling and worked with Viti’s family to allow our students an opportunity to express their grief in a memorial service.
In times of bereavement, we want to find ways to honour the person lost, and for this reason the school developed its own memorial garden, which includes a seat that Viti’s friends built out of pallets. So from now on we have a dedicated spot on our campus where anyone can take a moment for quiet reflection and all our loved ones can be remembered.