By Emma Rundle, Advisory Board Member at Sex Ed Matters
I had only recently started secondary school when I lost my Dad. His death came as a shock, it was unexpected, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for it. As a child you believe when someone goes to hospital they will get better, that the doctors will be able to fix them, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. This experience had a profound impact on my life. Here’s why grief is such a crucial, yet often overlooked, part of sex education.
The memory of my first day back at school is one I won’t forget. I had no idea how to talk to people about what had happened so avoiding the subject became my default. Starting ‘big school’ is daunting enough; trying to form new friendships and finding your identity. Being ‘the girl whose dad died’ isn’t how anyone wants to be known. I remember one of the boys in my class innocently asking if I had been on holiday and me not correcting him. It wasn’t that I found it too upsetting to talk about, in fact I quite liked to talk about it, it was that I didn’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable. I never lied about what happened but if someone assumed that my parents had divorced, and that’s why I only ever spoke about my mum, I let them.
When I returned to school, the extent of the support I received was my tutor asking me once if I was doing ok. It wasn’t until about 10 years later when I went to see my GP for symptoms of anxiety that he suggested I should speak to someone about the childhood trauma I had experienced. Until that day, I don’t think I ever even considered that losing my dad constituted childhood trauma. I had no idea of the extent it had affected me and was continuing to affect me. Thankfully, I received support in the form of counselling which helped me understand grief and develop coping strategies.
Grief is something which connects us all, it doesn’t discriminate, and it affects each and every one of us in some way. Yet, even adults struggle to talk about it. Which makes it unsurprising that for children, knowing what to say to a friend or classmate who has lost a loved one must be difficult to navigate.
Unfortunately, Emma’s experience isn’t as unusual as you might think. With 1 in 29 school-age children (equivalent to one child in every class) experiencing the loss of a parent or sibling, it’s important they are given the space and language they need to discuss their experience and seek the support they deserve.
Tips to addressing grief through education, from the team at Sex Ed Matters
Teachers can speak openly about grief in sex education classes, as this falls under the curriculum, which states:
"Relationships Education creates an opportunity to teach about emotional and mental wellbeing, including how friendships can support mental wellbeing… and [teachers should] give pupils the language and knowledge to understand the normal range of emotions that everyone experiences.”
When students are introduced to the topic of grief at a young age confidently, they are more likely to develop successful coping mechanisms which will last a lifetime.
The first step to achieving this is to help children conceptualise grief. While it was once said that “time heals”, as though grief goes away, often this is not the case. Sometimes, grief never goes away and doesn’t always get smaller. Instead, we grow bigger around grief as we develop as people. It’s something we live with and shapes our world. As we grow, we have space for thoughts and reflections.
It's also important to acknowledge that grief is not a linear process, and it will look different for everyone. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to grieve. It all comes down to what we need to express our emotions and process our feelings.
Teachers might want to encourage students to practice expressing their emotions in different ways, even if this is in relation to something not related to grief, as it’s great practice. For example, you might want to ask students to reflect on a worry they have and to express this feeling through the medium of a song, poem, letter, drawing or even a smell! This will help normalise not just feeling emotions but expressing and processing them.
Students can also be introduced to a range of coping mechanisms so that when the time comes, they can find the most effective one for them. Such mechanisms might include:
Blogging or journaling so they can track their emotions and spot triggers and trends. This can help any child understand themselves better and address the triggers they discover.
Joining a grief group to share experiences, thoughts and feelings with others who can truly relate. This will help prove the child is not alone and that there’s a whole community they can rely on throughout their grieving journey.
Talking to either a trusted adult or a professional to help process emotions.
Engaging with traditional therapy practices, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
If you feel passionate about this subject, you might want to support a new petition by author and activist Mark Lemon, calling on parliament to record the number of children in a household when a death is registered. This will help to identify the children who need support. Unfortunately, we can’t stop children experiencing bereavement, but we can do more to ensure they feel supported when they do.
We hope this blog has made grief less scary to discuss with children and that future generations can grow up with the language and space they need to develop successful coping mechanisms to last a lifetime.
This guest blog was written by Emma Rundle, member of Sex Ed Matters’ Advisory Board. Emma has
If you have any questions about what you’ve read, or how to weave grief support into the relationships and sex education curriculum, don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also sign up to our newsletter here to stay up to date with our work.