A psychologist has developed an award-winning program that broaches a taboo topic with Germany school children: death. There, the kids have the freedom to ask the questions their parents are often afraid to answer.
Death is all around us - and learrning about it helps ease fears
Grandpa George has died of cancer, aged 76. He is lying in a coffin, his hands are folded. It's very quiet in the classroom of nine- and 10-year olds when the film "Willi will's wissen" - "Willi wants to know" - is being screened. But as soon as the film is over, loud talk erupts and children start making comments like, "That's how my grandpa died" or "I didn't know that coffins were lined with beautiful silk."
Often, young children are first confronted with death when their grandparents die. While they can turn to mom and dad for answers, their parents don't always know what to say because they're trying to cope with the loss themselves.
Adults fear saying the wrong thing
Psychologist Bettina Hagedorn has worked in the hospice movement in the western German city of Düren for more than 13 years. She founded the educational program Hospice Goes to School" in 2005 because "being ill-informed about death and dying causes many family members to suffer and grieve unnecessarily," she explained.
According to Hagedorn's experience, children are very open-minded and interested when it comes to talking about death.
"If no one talks with children, they develop their own fantasies - and they are more frightening than reality," she warned. "There is clearly a need for a program like this."
Unlike many adults, children are keen to learn about death and dying
For the Hospice Goes to School program, a team of five trained hospice volunteers spend four hours a day for a week at an elementary school. In talking with nine- and 10-year-olds about death and dying, they dispel myths and explain facts. The children also carry out a variety of exercises that help them overcome their fears with confidence.
Most importantly, the kids are allowed to ask as many questions as they want - and they get answers.
Hagedorn's aim is for the children to learn that death is not just about sadness, but is one step in the cycle of life. In one rather lively section, they bring in photos of themselves, and discuss how they change as they age. Then the children talk about the lifecycle of butterfly and create colorful paintings.
They also learn about the use of medications, or simple facts like how fast ambulances can drive.
Easing the pain with comfort
On the last day of the course, parents are invited to join the class to see first-hand what their children have learned. The walls in the classroom are filled with paintings and drawings; off to one side there is a long row of plants that the children have been tending to all week.
"I had second thoughts, but I must say, they've done a great job," said Dietmar Hartzheim, whose daughter participated in the program. "I didn't get the impression that it was too much for the children. With the kids now learning about [death] this early, perhaps they can deal with it better later than we were able to."
The children themselves were also quite upbeat, considering the weightiness of the issue they had been dealing with all week.
The children learn about mourning, sadness and comforting
"I am certainly not afraid of death anymore," said one girl at the end of the five days. "For me this week was wonderful. I am no longer afraid of death."
A boy in the course said, "I'm still scared of dying because I don't know how that will be, but apart from that everything is okay."
Bettina Hagedorn knows from her own experience what it is like for children to experience the fear of a loved one dying without being able to understand what is happening.
"When I was six years old, my little brother was really ill," she explained in a soft voice. "For three days, my parents didn't know whether he was going to survive. They didn't inform my older brother and me. We had to wait outside the hospital and when they came out they were very sad, but they never told us how serious it was. It was frightening for me."
Hagedorn's efforts to keep children from having similar experiences have drawn positive attention. In 2007, the mass daily Bild am Sonntag and the German health insurance company Techniker Krankenkasse awarded it the PULSUS prize in the category "Best Health Campaign.”
Author: Wilhelmina Lyffyt
Editor: Kate Bowen