In death as in life – supporting the dying and the bereaved

Catholic social teaching rarely seems to touch on issues of death, dying, bereavement and so on, except, of course, in debates around euthanasia and medical choices made when caring for those close to death. But what about questions related to the care of those who are close to death, bereavement and the practicalities that inevitably arise when a member of the family dies? Many of the usual questions that are raised by Catholic social teaching pertain. What should be the role of the family, civil society, the Church and the state? How is the common good best promoted, remembering that the common good is about bringing society to a higher state of perfection? We cannot do that unless we are faithful companions to those who are dying and help those who are bereaved.

St. Mary’s University’s Centre for the Art of Dying Well provides resources for families suffering from bereavement. The Centre is increasingly working with seminarians, charities and trainee teachers. This is important. In Catholic social teaching, the wider network of social support that goes beyond the family is a crucial part of promoting the common good.

Here, Anne Lise Gordon, Director of the Institute of Education at St. Mary’s University, describes how the Institute is working with the Centre for the Art of Dying Well and other charities are equipping teachers to be part of the network of social support for bereaved children.

“There’s something around bereavement that is particularly difficult for a teacher, however it is experienced. Our own trainee teachers say that they are nervous of saying the wrong thing. So, our ability as an Initial Teacher Education Provider working in partnership with Child Bereavement UK, is to normalise conversations around death and dying; and to have honest conversations with children about feelings, emotions, the impact it might be having on behaviour and on their progress in study.”

“There’s something around bereavement that is particularly difficult for a teacher, however it is experienced. Our own trainee teachers say that they are nervous of saying the wrong thing.”

“The Institute of Education has done a pilot this year with all our trainee teachers being offered bereavement awareness training online. I was very struck by one response in the evaluation: 99.6 per cent said that the training had increased their confidence to deal with bereavement issues. We do have to do more of it, so next academic year we are going to offer the same training to all of our trainee teachers, and in discussion with Child Bereavement UK, we will also be exploring ways of extending it.”

“St. Mary’s University works with over 650 partnership schools. So we will involve them in some of this training as well so that they are equipped to in advance rather than being reactive when there is an unfortunate death of a parent or child associated with the school. At St Mary’s we are very keen to make sure those things are front and centre of the work we do with our trainee teachers as it is part of our mission and ethos.”

“The Centre for the Art of Dying Well has been key to the development of the partnership and pilot program with Bereavement UK. The subject of bereavement is a key strand of the work of the Centre. Speaking on the latest Art of Dying Well podcast  Tracey Boseley, National Development Lead for the Education Sector at Child Bereavement UK said:”

“We know that many young people have been affected by deaths during the pandemic, even though they may not have known the person very well; sometimes just hearing stories of other people who have died can have an impact. Or it could be someone in their own family: a grandparent, an aunt or an uncle, or a parent; or someone from their friendship group. There’s no way of knowing which particular death is going to affect them and there’s no hierarchy in the grief that they feel, so it’s about ensuring that support is available and being there for them.

“A lot of bereaved young people tell us they crave normality. And that’s what school can provide: stability and normality; structure and routine; because at home it might be quite chaotic. And often when there’s been a bereavement, things will never will be as they were, whereas school can be their guiding force and stability. That’s why many bereaved young people found it so difficult when they weren’t able to attend school regularly throughout the lockdowns. Providing a sense of normality, with flexibility and understanding from trusted and familiar adults within school, can make a real difference to bereaved young people.”

“This is an area where the moral and the social teaching of the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations meet. Throughout the millennia, Christians have been known for their compassionate care of the sick and dying. Today that translates into their support for the hospice movement. It is also important, however, that Christians lead the way in ensuring that other organisations in civil society, not least schools, are equipped to assist our young ones, as well as their staff, when they lose members of their family.”

Twitter Links

The Catholic Education Service
Art of Dying Well
Teach St Mary’s

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Author: Anna Lise Gordon

Published: 6th September 2021

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020