Navigating conversations of death and medically assisted dying with students

Medical assistance in dying was decriminalized in certain cases in Canada as of June 2016. Those persons with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” who meet the criteria under Bill C-14 now have the option to end their lives with the assistance of a medical practitioner, following the processes outlined in the Criminal Code of Canada.

Since its legislation, an average of 4 Canadians per day have chosen to end their lives using medical assistance. As medically assisted death (MAD) becomes even more common as the baby boomers age, there will be times when conversations of MAD will be raised into the classroom. Teachers must therefore be able to respond appropriately to both student questions and the emotional impact that those directly involved and those hearing the story will experience.

Based on previous research, it is known that teachers feels unprepared intellectually and emotionally to engage in the topic of death in their classrooms. This is unfortunate as it is a pedagogical and professional necessity that teachers help students to develop healthy attitudes and effective coping strategies with this social phenomenon, which may impact them at a vulnerable age. In their recent article, Drs. Meadow SchroederGabrielle Wilcox, and J. Kent Donlevy explored prior works on the topic of how teachers have approached the sensitive topic of death in classrooms in order to better understand how children of different ages view death, as well as how teachers can discuss MAD with their students.

How Children Understand Death

Children’s perception and understanding of death develop gradually, with children as young as pre-school-age able to describe some sense of the concept. By the late elementary years, children have an understanding that death is inevitable and universal. Children who have been affected by the death of a family member or relative tend to have a more mature understanding than their peers.

Yet, parents are typically reluctant to broach the topic of death with their children. Many assume their children cannot comprehend death, or might have their own personal discomfort with the topic. Avoiding the topic or using euphemisms such as “(s)he went to sleep” or “(s)he was sick” can have negative psychological consequences, resulting in children being confused and fearful.

All children will eventually be exposed to death through media, or in their personal experience of the loss of a family member, or the loss of a pet, and it is important to allow children to feel safe in asking questions and express their feelings about their loss at such times.

Teaching about Medically Assisted Dying?

Teachers need to be responsive and sensitive to any discussion of death and loss in the classroom. This is particularly true in the contentious case of MAD, as cultural and religious beliefs will influence students’ views, which translates into MAD being a controversial but necessary classroom topic. Teaching teachers to talk about death in developmentally appropriate ways is therefore key to good pedagogy and emotional awareness on this topic.

Students in the elementary years might be introduced to death through books and follow-up discussions. Students might also write about a death or loss, which can help further unpack how they conceptualize the idea. School counsellors and psychologists should certainly support teachers in developing suitable discussions and activities related to MAD.

By middle school, exploring the law through fact-based discussions is the recommended classroom process. While older students may be able to explore the differing moral and philosophical perspectives through comparison and debate, younger students are more likely to respond to controversial or conflicting information with denial and rejection.

In either case, teachers must be able to facilitate a respectful and civil discussion on the emotionally charged topic. Ensuring students have access to accurate sources, and that expectations and plans are set before behavioural or emotional issues arise is prudent pedagogy. Moreover, allowing students – on their own or with parental consent – to opt out of a planned discussion on MAD is advisable.

Ultimately, teachers themselves must also be prepared to engage in this discussion. The teachers must be aware of and have reflected upon their own views, influences, and past experience to ensure they are in a place, psychologically and pedagogically, to listen to students’ voices carefully, respectfully, and fully. With an aging population and the change to the Criminal Code, neither students nor their teachers can avoid the sensitive and controversial topic of medically assisted dying.

See more from Dr. J. Kent Donlevy on his profile

See more from Dr. Meadow Schroeder on her profile

See more from Dr. Gabrielle Wilcox on her profile

Connected Citations

Donlevy, J. K., Schroeder, M., & Wilcox, G. (2018). Medical assistance in dying: Implications for Canadian classrooms and the academy. Interchange. Online First.