Is Death the New Sex?
Last year there was a widely-circulated television news story about a ten year-old boy named Kyler Bradley who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. A news crew filmed Kyler in his classroom surrounded by his friends, who were eagerly listening to the instructions of their teacher, who directed them to "pray for a miracle." The exact words of the news anchor reporting the story were: "Kyler believes in miracles. So do his classmates. Their teacher planted that idea when she told 30 ten year-olds about Kyler's cancer." One of the children was quoted as saying, "If everybody prays for him, God will listen."
Kyler died six months later, and there was impassioned discussion among the educators and grief counselors in my professional network about the teacher's strategy for helping her class deal with Kyler's impending death. While prayer as an intervention might have been an appropriate strategy in a church or Sunday school classroom, it had no place in a public school setting where the religious beliefs of the children and their families were unknown. One has to wonder how the parents of those children responded to the inevitable question, "Why did Kyler die? Why didn't God listen?"
The children in Kyler’s class were faced with the ultimate spiritual conundrum… if God is good, then why do bad things happen? This question requires deep theological exploration, and has been pondered by mystics and religious scholars for millennia. Most Western children grow up with the image of God as a male father figure who rewards and punishes us according to our behavior and the degree of our piety. When faced with loss or trauma, this image frequently comes into question, and as people mature and their spiritual views evolve, that image is likely to change. It is my hope that Kyler’s classmates were guided through their crisis of faith by open-minded adults who had done some theological reflecting of their own, and were prepared to address this pivotal event in their children’s lives.
But the bigger issue here is not about religion. It is about the lack of death education available to American children, their parents and their teachers. The proper response for Kyler’s school would have been to bring in a grief counselor who could talk to the children about the reality of death, and prepare them for Kevin's departure. But instead, their heads were filled with magical thinking, which only added extra layers of confusion to the process of accepting the loss and working through the grieving process.
It is my belief that death awareness should part of every child’s education, but the idea of death education in schools is as taboo today as sex education was when I was ten years old more than 50 years ago. If I was a teacher advocating for sex education back in 1960, I'd probably get fired, or possibly arrested. But thanks to the work of bold researchers and social activists in recent decades, sex education eventually became acceptable. Today, death education is slowly but surely following that lead, which makes those of us who are bringing death into the public forum the new Masters & Johnson.
Some would argue that death, like sex, should be discussed at home, not in the classroom. But the problem today echoes the problem that existed in the 1950s. Back then, parents didn't talk to their children about sex, and today, they don't talk about death. It’s time for death to come out of the closet so that we can raise a generation of feeling, thinking young adults who can accept the ebb and flow of human experience, and allow loss and grief to become a healthy part of their life cycle.