Teaching children about grief is an investment in public health

01 Nov 2023
A young person sits with his head in his hands

Death and grief are currently not included in the national curriculum. In a piece in the Daily Express, Heidi Travis, Sue Ryder's Chief Executive, explained why we are calling for an urgent change. Find out more below.

In every classroom, one child in 29 will experience the loss of a parent or sibling, and by the age of 16, almost every schoolchild will have confronted the reality of death. Yet children are not taught about grief in schools, and it is rarely discussed.

The consequences of this can be profound. For many, community and family networks may have broken down or do not exist, and children have become increasingly reliant on schools to develop essential life skills that they need in difficult times, such as when they have experienced a bereavement.

Investing in children's futures

Failing to teach children how to confront their grief has a long-term impact.

Children who have experienced a close bereavement:

  • have lower than average GCSE scores (1)
  • are over-represented in the prison system by the age of 30 (2)
  • are at increased risk of depressive symptoms and anxiety (3).

"The emotional and psychological scars, not to mention the diminished life chances, can be passed down through the generations."

Emotional skills we learn in childhood are the bedrock on which we build our lives. Simply put, teaching children about grief and bereavement is not a "nice to have" - it is an investment in our society’s public health, creating adults who are better equipped to navigate one of life’s most difficult challenges.

Opening up the conversation

Some people may feel that children should be shielded from the harsh realities of life, including death. That view needs to be challenged. Children possess an innate curiosity and resilience; engaging them in open conversations about death lays the groundwork for healthier emotional processing in the future.

Some parents may struggle to talk about the death of a family member, especially if they are themselves struggling with their grief. This can limit a child’s understanding of the emotions they are seeing and feeling. By the ages of eight to ten, many children can grasp the permanence of death.

Far from being a reason to shield them from its reality, this is an opportunity to discuss the complexities of grief and bereavement in schools. This is not simply a case of adding additional responsibility to hard-pressed teachers, nor is it outsourcing parents’ responsibilities; it is a collaborative undertaking and these conversations can provide children with the tools to cope with loss and emotional upheaval.

For anyone who has suffered a bereavement, at any age, the most important thing is to give them an outlet to express their feelings. If children are given that opportunity, they will feel more comfortable talking about death as they grow up and become adults. That, in turn, will make them feel more comfortable talking about grief and bereavement with their own children.

Lessons on death and grief

At present, there is no requirement for schools to have a bereavement policy, nor is grief education included in teacher training, but the case for making bereavement and grief education part of the Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum is compelling.

"These lessons don’t need to be complex, nor is there a substantial cost involved."

We must get better at both talking and listening when it comes to death and grief. With proper guidance, teachers can lead these discussions as effectively as they navigate other sensitive topics already included in RSHE. It simply requires a modest investment to include it in the teacher training curriculum, supporting teachers so they feel equipped to deal with the subject.

Sue Ryder’s research found that 86% of bereaved people feel alone in their grief; while 81% of people told us that they didn’t know what to say or do when somebody close to them was grieving. Pair the two together and you can see we have a societal issue on our hands.

But that will only happen if we break the cycle by teaching children about bereavement. Helping them to understand the complexity of their feelings, and to empathise with others who may be suffering as they deal with their own grief, will equip them with the simple conversational skills they need in such situations.

Ultimately, that will create a more supportive, understanding environment in the future; a generation of children will grow up understanding that an awkward silence, or avoiding the subject entirely, is not an appropriate response when a friend or colleague has suffered a bereavement.

The Department of Education is set to launch a review of the RSHE curriculum and Sue Ryder is adding its voice to our colleagues working in child bereavement to call for the inclusion of grief education in the syllabus.

It is both a public health strategy and an ethical imperative. We underestimate its importance at our peril.

Read Heidi's comment on The Express website.


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