Education: When death comes out of the dark: Some sad truths emerged when pupils had a rare chance to discuss a painful subject, reports Kay Smith

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Death is a subject that children need to talk about - and the need is not being met, in or out of school. This is the disturbing conclusion arising from a series of group discussions held in five primary schools in Edinburgh.

Counsellors from Cruse, the voluntary bereavement counselling organisation, talked to 179 pupils aged 10 and 11. More than half were found to have lost friends or relatives; 55 had lost close relatives, such as grandparents; five had lost parents.

The discussions revealed that there were few adults with whom the children could talk about these deaths. For many, the counsellors' inquiries were a first opportunity to talk about previously hidden feelings.

'When my Nana died I didn't cry, but about a month ago when I was in the car I fell asleep and when I woke I thought of my Nana and I started crying. I hid my coat over my face so no one could see me,' one child said.

According to the children, parents often covered up their awkwardness by lying. 'My mum and dad said my Uncle Sandy had gone to Africa, and he never, he got run down by a train,' said one child. Such lies, often intended to protect, may only make a child feel excluded.

Children also felt left out by not being allowed to a funeral. 'Mum was crying - I just went to my room and cried - I wanted her to take me to the funeral - but she didn't want me to,' was another recollection.

The children found their own way of coping. Many knew the golden rule of what to do with troubled feelings. 'All the feelings build up inside - if you talk about it, it gets it off your mind,' said one child. Yet sadly, most had to turn to a friend their own age, or an older brother or sister, rather than an understanding adult. Others found it helpful to write in a diary, or simply be on their own.

The sessions started with talk about the loss of a favourite toy, or a pet, and so moved on quite easily to recollections of feelings about the death of relatives or friends. 'If you don't talk about it, feelings niggle away down below,' said Ann Dockrell, a Cruse counsellor.

She also saw the sessions as useful groundwork for those yet to be affected by death. 'Discussing death without anxiety and hearing about the experiences of others make it less of a frightening prospect.'

Cruse is cautious about the manner in which 'bereavement education' could be adopted in schools. 'Some of the children were excited to talk about death, but others were very frightened. It all has to be handled very sensitively,' says Mrs Dockrell, a retired pyschology lecturer.

She is adamant that the kind of discussions led by Cruse should only be carried out with small groups, not with a large class. Teachers, if they are to take the work on, should have training. Care also needs to be taken to ensure that teachers have come to terms with their own feelings.

Such teachers must realise that their relationship with the children may need to be different from that they may have with a child in the classroom. 'There should be no preconceptions about who is the naughty child,' Mrs Dockrell says.

Just as Mrs Dockrell has reservations about death talk getting into the hands of the wrong people, so teachers may have reservations about the merits of bringing outside experts into schools. 'The primary school teacher is with the class all day, she knows her pupils very well, she is the best person to do the job,' says Loretta Scott, a pupil guidance adviser in Glasgow.

In Glasgow, and the rest of the regional education authority of Strathclyde, teachers are offered training in counselling. 'But it's up to the child to mention death, and to the sensitivity of the teacher to pick up on it,' says Bob Cook, regional adviser on guidance. The training, Mr Cook says, helps teachers to 'stick with children who express emotions, particularly scary ones such as death'.

Within secondary schools responsibility can too easily be shifted from one department to the next. Many teachers think it is enough for the religious education department to teach children about funeral rites in different cultures. But Anne Noble, principal teacher of religious education at Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, believes that this does not go far enough.

Mrs Noble teaches small classes of pupils she knows well and who are therefore more likely to be comfortable talking about personal feelings. 'But if it's a weeping sore I'll divert this into individual counselling sessions,' she says.

She does not, however, leave the discussion of death to chance; it is addressed directly, perhaps through considering different experiences of loss, or by initiating a discussion on the after-life. 'The pupils are fascinated to be able to talk about something that is never discussed in the home - or in any other subject,' she says.