Thousands of schoolchildren from the age of three upwards are to receive lessons on how to deal with death.
In an effort to make the subject more palatable, elephants are used as a theme running through the campaign. Teachers are advised to explain the concept of grieving by telling pupils that when an elephant dies the rest of the herd are sad and show this by gathering around the body, unwilling to leave it.
Another suggestion is to use the idea of an elephant never forgetting as a way to discuss memories of family members or even pets that die.
Around 24,000 children a year in Britain experience the trauma of losing a parent. Overall, one child in 29 has suffered the death of a parent or sibling and one in 16 has lost a close friend. Against the backdrop of these statistics, 550 primary schools across the country have signed up to incorporate the subject of death into their curriculums. The lessons are part of a nationwide campaign aimed at breaking the taboo of discussing dying with children.
One participant in the scheme, Lambrook School near Ascot, Berks, has already started teaching about bereavement. Jonathan Perry, headteacher, said staff had prepared themselves for tears, but in the event pupils remained dry-eyed. “Often children are much better at dealing with matters like this than adults,” Mr Perry said. “Staff have been so impressed about the mature way children have discussed such matters.”
Ann Chalmers, chief executive of Child Bereavement UK, which has launched the initiative, acknowledged some parents may be initially concerned about such a sensitive issue being discussed in the classroom.
But Ms Chalmers said she believed it would be beneficial to bereaved families. “When children are bereaved so often we hear their experiences aren’t handled as well as they might be in schools,” Ms Chalmers said.
“The children we support tell us how often they feel isolated when they’ve been bereaved. Not only do they find that the teachers don’t know how to respond to them, but their peers can find it very difficult as well. So the idea behind the campaign is to raise awareness about how these issues can be talked about in a non-threatening way.”