Case study: Talking about death

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Working together: Pupils from Sir Thomas More with some of the patients at the Loros hospice in Leicester (Images: Supplied)

Talking about death is something we are not very good at and often do not tackle in schools. Yet a vast majority of pupils will experience a significant bereavement before the age of 16. Emma Lee-Potter reports on a pilot project linking one school’s pupils with their local hospice

Death and bereavement are part of many children’s lives. More than two-thirds of schools have a bereaved pupil on their roll at any given time, while 92 per cent per cent of young people experience a significant bereavement before they reach the age of 16.

Death is a difficult subject to talk about, particularly with young children, but a pilot project launched by a Leicester hospice is helping to address the issue in a sensitive and thoughtful way.

Loros hospice, which supports and cares for more than 2,500 people in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland every year, recently invited a group of primary school children to work on an art project with terminally ill patients.

For a month during the spring term, five year 6 pupils from Sir Thomas More Catholic Voluntary Academy in Leicester visited patients at the hospice every Thursday afternoon.

Accompanied by year 6 teacher Helen Priestley and teaching assistant Jackie O’Halloran, the children worked with the patients in Loros’s day therapy unit to create a set of five multi-coloured mosaic tiles. As they sat alongside each other and assembled the tiny pieces of coloured stone, the patients chatted to the pupils about their lives and explained why they were at the hospice.

“Death is very much part of everyone’s lives but in Britain we aren’t very good at talking about it,” explained Veronica Mickleburgh, Loros’s patient experience lead, who initiated the project.

“The whole aim of the project was to raise awareness about what Loros does and to dispel myths and misunderstandings about death and dying. We wanted to show the children that when people need a hospice like Loros at the end of their lives it’s not a scary place.

“By coming into the hospice the children learned first-hand about our work. It was important for the children to interact with the patients at Loros because illness can be a part of people’s lives and death is going to happen to us all at some point.

“The artwork provided the catalyst for conversations and the patients really enjoyed working with a much younger generation. They were able to share some of their history and make comparisons about what life was like when they were at school compared to today.

“The patients all thought it was a really good idea – and everyone left the sessions each week with a huge smile on their faces.”

Sir Thomas More, which has had links with Loros for several years and has raised money for the charity through sporting events and non-uniform days, jumped at the chance to take part in the initiative.

“Because of our close association Loros asked us whether we would be interested in a group of children working one-to-one with some of the patients, under the supervision of staff, to create beautiful pieces of artwork,” said acting headteacher Martin Fitzwilliam.

Staff at Sir Thomas More began the project, which was fully supported by parents, by preparing the year 6 pupils for their visits to the hospice. The children who took part were chosen because they had “a passion for art”. However, the whole year group attended a presentation at the school by Ms Mickleburgh, where she outlined the work of the hospice and described a typical day in the life of a Loros patient.

“Because of the sensitive nature of the project we talked about the purpose of Loros and why the patients are there,” said Mr Fitzwilliam, who is also executive headteacher of Christ the King Catholic Primary School in Leicester.

“The children were told what the project would involve, what they were going to create and who they would be working with. Part of our teaching of religious education involves death and new life so we talked about what death is and how it impacts on our lives and linked it to a religious point of view.

“Death is a certainty in life and children are aware of that. Many of them have been faced with the death of a member of their family or a close friend or a pet and it’s an important part of a holistic education that they recognise and are prepared for those inevitabilities of life – no matter how sad they are. Allowing children to talk about how they feel – the good and the bad, happy memories and very sad memories – is really important.”

Mr Fitzwilliam and his team have been delighted by the project’s impact. “I think adults sometimes over-worry about how children are going to react and respond in these situations,” he said.

“Children are impressively resilient and our pupils were very accepting of the situation the patients were in. They showed respect, great manners and politeness and they enjoyed spending time with the patients.

“Creating the mosaics helped too. Sometimes if you are having a face-to-face discussion it can feel quite stifled and difficult to talk but when you are doing something else at the same time the environment is relaxed and the conversation flows freely.”

Ms Priestley agreed that the collaboration with Loros had been inspirational: “It has been an incredibly valuable project and we feel privileged that Loros chose to pilot the scheme with us,” she said.

“Education is about more than just reading, writing and mathematics. Through our involvement in this project the children have had the opportunity to use their social skills and show kindness and above all compassion within our local community.”

By the end of the four weeks the children and patients (known as their “buddies”) had created five stunning mosaic tiles. Each tile is emblazoned with a letter and together they spell the word Loros – with huge hearts signifying the two Os of Loros.

“The mosaics are all colour co-ordinated and absolutely beautiful,” said Mr Fitzwilliam. “We are going to put them in pride of place so they can be appreciated long-term. They will be a focal point of the school and we want as many members of the community to see them as possible.

“The whole project has been very enriching for everyone – a rich tapestry of experience. The children have spent quality, happy time with people who are terminally ill and they have been able to see that it isn’t bleak.”

Ms Mickleburgh was impressed by the children’s response to the project too. She received a number of letters from them afterwards, commenting on the hospice’s beautiful setting and atmosphere and saying that they could see how the place brightened people’s lives.

“The pupils were amazing,” said Ms Mickleburgh. “In some ways I think we underestimate children. The pupils from St Thomas More came into the unit, slotted in very easily and didn’t appear nervous. The level of interaction was far and above what I had been expecting.

“On the last day we held a celebratory event and invited the children’s parents in to see the mosaics. The whole emphasis of the project was to raise awareness about our work and to spread the word and it has been a very successful, positive experience. I’m hoping that we can do it again.” .

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

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