Why We Should Teach “Death” at School

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Last weekend was a traumatizing event for an entire community in a small corner of Cairo, Egypt which is my home this academic year. A young man of 15, a student of the school that my children are currently attending, and the son of an old friend and highly valued colleague, passed away of injuries sustained in a car accident. Ahmed was on his way home. Hours before, he had been at the school’s University Fair looking at college options. Most Hayah parents and kids were there that Thursday night as well (Egypt’s weekend starts on Thursday), for the fair and the wide variety of other afterschool activities that take place there all week.

As the news and the funeral processions and gatherings took over the weekend, one blatant thing became apparent. We were all inexcusably in a state of shock. The strange thing, is that many of us had been here before. Not only had most of us already buried a loved one or family member, but a great number of us had experienced the sudden loss of a young soul. Yet there was no protocol but the grief. No road map of how or where to merge back onto the road of our “to do lists” with any vestiges of motivation.

The surprising truth is though, most of us would.

Within days actually, whoever is not directly in the bereaved family’s next of kin category or a close friend, would unknowingly be forced back into an “autopilot” mode that I now fear puts us at risk of missing the point of life entirely.

We have been conditioned to push death way back down to the very back of our consciousness, hug our loved ones when we are reminded of its ugly existence and thank God they are still with us, and move on. That always felt painfully selfish to me. Where does that leave the family and the loved ones who are actually experiencing the gaping hole of a missing person? How does that help them? Beyond sending the endless trains of meals to their homes, and setting up charities in their name, how come we are left with so little to offer in these circumstances?

Shouldn’t there be a “Stop, Drop and Roll” like training for such a massive loss that we know, with 100% certainty, will happen to ALL of us from different angles and degrees of closeness? Shouldn’t we personally spend more time acknowledging that we are as vulnerable in our current bodies as uncooked eggs are in their flimsy shells? Shouldn’t we make our children aware of that?

How many children who have lost parents would have emerged in better shape from that horror, had they been taught how death was an intrinsically vital part of life? I think that our insistence to not talk about death or think about it or look into it closely is the main reason why we are unable to live happily, calmly and with love. I feel that, as a teacher and educator, I have let my students down by not preparing them for this.

The knee jerk response to this has always been, “Well, that is what religion is for.”
I disagree.

I understand that religion is there to explain where we go after we check out of our current bodies and become “out of range” to other souls that are still plugged into this earth. However, religion seems to be designed to regulate life and not death. It largely tells you what to do in life so that you go to a specific place post death. It teaches you how to plan for a safe and happy ever after, and gives your loved ones an answer to where you would hopefully go. Each community and faith has a narrative for this. And that narrative almost exclusively centers around accepting God’s plans for you. This is not what I am discussing here.

I am trying to look at an alternative mindset that would not only render us more accepting, but one that would leave us better prepared. I say this knowing well, that we are never going to be fully prepared for this. But I do believe that by trying to be prepared to accept death we will have a much better quality of life.

I was supposed to be the Keynote Speaker at the school’s Career Day this upcoming weekend. My presentation was set up to walk the students through how I shifted my career path so many times, changed my mind so many times and how that was ok. I asked for the event to be postponed.

Instead I would like to introduce thinking points that could be viable suggestions for our school’s Character Education curriculum. I am sure other teachers and parents can come up with more valid points. But let me attempt to roll this unpopular ball down the road first, since I am already here, at a point of loss and sorrow over Ahmed, that has affected my personal ability to go about normally in my life.

Thinking points I believe a curriculum for “Death Skills” should include:

*Infinite Does not Equal Success:

For all of us it seems that “forever” is the goal of every endeavor. You want loved ones to be around forever and love you forever, have financial success that lasts forever, have full control over you strength, beauty and bodily abilities forever etc…

In reality life is very finite. It has a clear beginning and end. When we are handed our children at the hospital we need to be reminded however much it hurts, that this is a finite being with a story and a purpose. He or she already has an expiry date stamped somewhere we cannot see and we carry that stamp on our bodies as well.

He or she will not necessarily be there for my “forever” nor will I be there for him or her. We are intersecting for a while. That “while” should be constantly celebrated and seen for what it truly is. A short while in the grand scheme of things. You see when we push that back and we don’t talk to them about it, it impacts our life. Our days become about pushing forward, accomplishing things in this day for a tomorrow that we perceive to be without fail happening in hours. The alarm is set, the hours planned, the outcome mistakenly taken for granted.

We forget that the design of today should be a mix between actually living it with each other now and planning with just a percentage of the hours left for what is most probably to come. New generations should challenge this status quo, maybe our priorities would shift. Try bringing this up with your children or class. I suggest trying to bring death, as a topic, to the center. Not the front. Not in obscurity in the back like it is now. But in the center where we move and plan around it.

By seeing human beings, work, accomplishments and possessions as something to enjoy only for a “while”, I believe we will feel them differently. Also from a practical perspective, it teaches us to consider alternative possibilities that could be a part of their life experience.

For example, what would happen if their family no longer has both a mom and dad because of divorce (the death of a relationship) or an actual passing of one of them? Who would take care of them? What is the plan in place? What if they were a family of four kids and became only three kids because of a loss? What if they would shift from two siblings to an only child scenario?

If you think about it, these hypotheticals are very similar to the following topics that we readily discuss: What if we didn’t always have the big house? What if you changed your room? What if Dad was no longer a doctor and decided to become an actor instead? What if mom works full time and is not as accessible as before.

Conversations about ending and transitions that involve us or our loved ones leaving their physical bodies, could feel morbid at first. Like we are introducing fear and sadness into their repertoire. But in reality they most probably have a friend experiencing one of these elements of ending, death or loss. By not educating our children about this we are leaving these members of our communities without a common language to discuss these natural phases.

If the bodies carrying the souls around us are accepted as fragile vessels, that can easily break and fail to hold our loved ones within them, we may grow to treat each other with the kind of love and care that that knowledge generates. We may learn to celebrate the time those bodies were functional on earth however long or short that time was.

We can try to shift our loss mindset from:
This person had this much time ahead of them, and they could have been this or that (caring son/daughter, father/mother, spouse or friend) to us, which is a statement built on the assumption of “forever”
And replace it with:
“I was assigned time with this this person that amounted to “X”, I was the best person I could have been to him/her during that time, I expressed love and gratitude and worked on my relationship with that person and I too shall leave this earth at a specified time, not to be taken for granted because I am young or seemingly healthy, knowing that there will be a way to connect with this person at a later date.

*Death is a Major Shift in Routine:

For a family or individual experiencing the disappearance (sudden or otherwise) of a person, the hours coming up ahead, starting with the very first hours when they find out what ended that life till years and years later, their life routine experiences a major shift.

Accordingly, belongings have to be relocated (as you read this point your mind will recoil and try to think of something else or stop reading, that is how strong the instinct to shy away from this topic is) and rooms re-assigned and hours planned differently to exclude that person that was an active member of your life.

By acknowledging this, I believe we can raise people who are more “present” and have a more balanced relationship with people around them as well as their belongings. This could encourage them to plan their lives with less permanency. It is often these feelings of permanence that at times lead to jealousy or vengeful feelings. You would be less likely to covet if you understood the transience of life better. Alternatively you would be more likely to shift when uncomfortable, knowing that routines will and do shift and that surrounding people and circumstances are designed to eventually adapt to change.

*Death of a Loved One is a Massive Injury of the Soul:

Like any injury, it requires Pain Management and TIme Management. People need to know it is ok to take the blow and lie flat on their back. That they don’t have to be brave. That there is no glory in holding back tears. As a family with children, holding each other and crying (quietly or loudly) is a vital part of healing. Assessing what works best (to gather around a person or let them grieve in peace) is an art that needs to be as meticulously navigated as a heart surgery.

In all cases there is a massive pain that needs to be handled sometimes with medication and other times with love and tears. Words of wisdom, comfort, religious teachings and even idle chatter should be selected with utmost care.

Furthermore there is a massive time-management problem as the surviving individuals have lives that keep on rolling despite the event that has knocked them onto their back. This is an avenue and a skill set that needs to be part of our curricula. By ignoring it, families and individuals painfully re-invent the wheel every time. Some have really intuitive friends and communities that come up with plans that work. However, more often than not, the learning curve is steep and painful because we are so unprepared.

I think that just as puberty is given a chapter in biology class, death and its aftermath should be given a “skills” chapter somewhere.

A “Death Skills” curriculum could provide a lexicon that could help us discuss war and the accepted death of soldiers differently. It could help us manage resources differently and maybe even plan our career, relationships and time differently. Understanding the finite nature of our existence and the current fragile nature of our human body could make us better people.

Like everything else we deem “teachable” it is a skill that is better introduced when the mind is young and looking to those who have been around on this earth longer, to be of assistance. A “Death Skills” curriculum could also help us be more tolerant to each other’s beliefs…More tolerant to our mistakes and weaknesses…More accepting to shifts in our paths as we navigate from a point of birth to a point of ending.

I personally came out of this harrowing weekend, with an intense love for Sherien (Ahmed’s mother) and an intense love for my community. I want to be of help. I want to be there for her and her family and Ahmed’s young friends. I feel so grateful to be present at this point of time with the other fragile bodies in my circle of social connection.

I do feel the need to hug my children but also the need to explain to them in detail what happened and walk through all the questions that they may have. I feel like I would like to hold a family meeting about this topic at least 2 or 3 times a year to make sure that we are all present and in full appreciation of our time and physical and mental faculties. I want to discuss life change possibilities every year and plan it so that we have all said things that may have been left unsaid.

I hope you did not find this topic too difficult to contemplate/discuss and I hope that this rambling serves as a point of reflection in our otherwise “seemingly busy” days. My heart goes out to Sherien and her family and the community of Hayah. If anything, they have all taught me how a situation like this can be a moment of love and support like nothing I have ever seen before. I am humbled by them and I feel blessed to be in their company.

After living in Egypt and the US, 16 years of marriage, 3 children, 12 years of teaching, 4 years of owning and running a preschool and publishing a modestly successful book, about the Egyptian Revolution, Hoda began blogging. The more she wrote online the more she found that she was getting a deep thrill through connecting to people and reading their responses and their own stories.

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