Time to Teach the “Dirtiest Word” in School

Death is the “dirtiest word I know,” so I think it’s critical we stop hiding from one of our most commonly shared human experiences. Both health education & sex education are well-accepted elements of a strong school curriculum — why not death education?

No wonder this description of a 2023 SXSW Edu session titled “The Case for Death Education in High Schools”  hooked me:

We will all encounter death and most of us are unprepared for it…We expect everyone to figure it out, to navigate without a map. This is not merely irresponsible, it’s unethical. This is why we need death education.

Austin Roy, a high school English teacher, described how he came to teach teenagers about death. Even in the private Flintridge Prepatory School where 7th-graders start a quarter-long sex education program by having the class shout the “dirty words” in unison (screams of “Penis!” “Vagina!” echoing from the classroom), death remained the Forbidden subject. When he first proposed teaching it, the principal liked the concept but rejected the course. At first.

“But what would you teach?” one friend reacted to the idea of death education. Good question.

Roy’s curriculum answers with 3 general topics of study & discussion:

  • Grief theory — intricately interwoven with death itself, grief is often the first thing we experience after the death of another. And again, most people arrive at this inevitable and unenviable experience unprepared and unaware. Fortunately, grief has been thoroughly studied and analyzed, resulting in various theories from Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” to the renowned work of  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on stages of death/grief as well as multiple other models. Unfortunately, few people understand this before they become overwhelmed by grief itself.
  • Death process — Another aspect of death education should involve the associated medical vocabulary as well as stages and symptoms of “active dying.” Knowledge of the natural process of bodily death can help assuage feelings of anxiety and confusion. Yet, again, we mostly learn from experience — after we first needed the knowledge.
  • Key forms — Death involves details and requires decisions most people have never faced before. While many people have encountered the concepts of “advanced directives” and DNR (“Do Not Resuscitate”) orders, few fully understand these forms until they have to fill them out under the emotional duress of a loved one dying.  Other forms such as Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) may be needed, while a form like “5 Wishes” allows the individual to address key end-of-life questions.

Scheduled in one of the smaller rooms, this session nevertheless filled up with interested educators. As the session ended with a brief Q&A, I mentioned death doulas and the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA). I feel the topic belongs in any death education curriculum.

The Case for Death Education in High Schools — 2023 SXSW Edu 

It felt good to hear from someone actually endeavoring to address death education as a serious topic. He’s not the only one, of course, but given the ubiquity of the subject matter, death educators remain rare. I deeply believe we need to include death education in the standard student curriculum as part of a basic education.

Rather than continue pretending death is not a suitable subject for discussion, let’s start teaching death education in our schools. Our children deserve no less.


About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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1 Response to Time to Teach the “Dirtiest Word” in School

  1. Joyce Tianello Snodgrass says:

    especially after Covid. And shootings.

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