Every year, I take 130 high school seniors on a field trip to a funeral home—a trip that is met with wide-eyed gasps and comments like “Why do you do that?”
Death is a scary subject that people prefer not to discuss, and our society struggles with supporting the bereaved. Studies show increased health risks for the bereaved, especially bereaved youth. Teens who have lost someone are at higher risk of drug abuse/dependence and mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, and suicidal ideation. In my Death, Dying, and Grief unit, we examine the reactions and behaviors around death. We also practice coping mechanisms and discuss ways to support grieving friends and family.
Building Students Up
In order to prepare for these difficult topics, I spend a lot of time building a classroom culture of respect, compassion, and dignity. Every few weeks, we do class bonding activities that fit within our curriculum. We create and share our goals for the future. We play games like Family Feud and a ball toss activity that is a metaphor for goal setting. We create art and do crafts together. These bonding activities precede our more difficult conversations about death and dying. When we reach these challenging topics, students are already familiar with each other and have developed trust in our classroom.
I also introduce presentations early in the year. Students speak to their classmates on less intimidating topics first. By the time we reach conversations about grief, we have established a supportive community where students are comfortable sharing personal stories.
I begin my unit with a conversation about the stages of grief. We talk about how even though these are emotions and feelings, they can manifest physically as exhaustion, headache, or numbness in hands or feet.
We also look at tasks for grieving to help us understand that grieving is hard work and something that requires active participation. We make loss timelines, from birth to today, listing all the events that have prompted a grief cycle and identifying the emotions experienced during each of our own losses. Some students have many large losses, while others struggle to think of any. Students learn how any loss, not just a death, can cause grief. I start with an example not related to death: losing your cell phone. We walk through the stages, using this example: bargaining while trying to track it down, anger at ourselves or others, and finally acceptance that it is gone. Students learn how grief can take different forms and affect people differently.
Normalizing Reactions and Behaviors
Once we understand the stages and tasks of grieving, students learn to accept that everyone grieves in their own way. The stages are not linear, and tasks are not numbered. There is no right or wrong. There is no set path that everyone must follow; the stages and tasks will come and go, ebb and flow, throughout the rest of our lives.
Students learn how their emotional experience can be observed without being judged. We watch Tuesdays With Morrie and collect meaningful quotes that we turn into found poetry about death, life, and love.
Students also complete a hospice empathy activity to help identify emotions and learn how to support our loved ones who are hurting. The discussion focuses on empathy and how it is distinct from sympathy.
Building Empathetic Responses
Using Silk and Goldman’s Kvetching Circle as a guide, students explore when to extend a listening ear and when to expose their own pain. Class discussions center on ways to help a friend who is hurting, and students develop an appreciation for presence: just sitting with a bereaved friend can mean so much.
Students share what has helped them the most during grief and how to extend that to others. They also learn the signs of a more serious response and discuss ways to ask for help for themselves or their loved ones.
Going Beyond the Classroom
Visiting a funeral home is our culminating activity for the unit. Students learn about the process of funeral planning because one day they will be the ones who need to plan someone’s funeral. As difficult and heartbreaking as that may be, they will handle the whole situation better if they are not walking into a funeral home for the first time ever in the throes of grief.
To prepare, I walk students through our agenda for the day. We start in the funeral home’s chapel, a nondenominational space where anyone can gather, with a presentation from the funeral director, who speaks about his or her role and what qualifications it requires. We move on to steps in planning, options available, and costs associated. The funeral director describes how the funeral home serves families and people of different cultures and religions. Students ask questions and tour the facility, which includes a stop in the sample room and reception room. We do not view any bodies, as that would not be respectful to the deceased or their families. At the very end, the students complete a written reflection about what they learned and how they felt. While they are completing the reflection, the on-site grief support dog visits with them.
My students are shocked by the cost and intricacy of planning and funerals. Students return with a greater understanding of themselves as well as their feelings and beliefs around death.
Talking about death isn’t easy, but it is important to help students navigate their way through grief. Teachers can play a valuable role in the process by being present, talking with students, and reminding them of available resources if they are hurting.