Bringing Death out of the Shadows: A CJA Junior High Journey into Grief and Loss

By Lesley Machon

Calgary Jewish Academy junior high students explored a curriculum-twist this year with the infusion of literature about grief, death, and healing. Although these are not topics we commonly lean into, teens decided to push past fears and hesitations and dive deep into questioning the impact that our view of death, might have on our lives.

Though most of you know me as the Humanities teacher, I have also pursued additional training in Thanatology and grief and bereavement counselling to offer end-of-life support to fellow Albertans. This work has deepened my appreciation for life and transformed the way I show up in the classroom.

Acknowledging that many families in our community have endured tragedies in recent years, my aim was to incorporate the topic of death in the classroom in a sensitive yet significant way. Students tapped into their innate desire for relevance and meaning-making, and created projects that were tender and stirring.

We began with a unit called “From Lab Coat to Sweatpants: Bridging the Gap Between Science and Empathy” where students read and researched medical stories and explored illness from both a scientific and emotional perspective. Then we explored different ways to talk about and orient towards death: through poetry, novel studies, and film studies. We invited in guest speakers – a mom and her child who was given 24 hours to live (but who lived to receive a rare transplant and was labelled a medical miracle), and a bioethics expert. The students enjoyed this aspect immensely, and asked insightful questions, such as what the mother felt when she was given the news of her daughter’s prognosis, and how she coped with the devastating news. Soon, we will hear from an Indigenous death doula and various religious leaders. To cap it off, our mitzvah project included the creation of bracelets, hats, and art for children in the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Seeing students’ creations bring joy to families at the hospital, and walking through the school hallways amidst posters they created as part of their medical research project, was incredibly moving.

As a result of the impact I witnessed this exploration have on students, I published an article for a teaching magazine outlining our process with the hopes of inspiring other educators to incorporate this topic in their classroom and make death a less taboo topic.

Death is a subject that can be uncomfortable for many, but like many topics we find confronting, grief, loss, and death are important for young people to explore. Doing so helps them appreciate life, engage with others in an empathetic and compassionate way, and postulate about living and dying with dignity and integrity.

A special thank you to Dr. Julie Booke and Sydney Morgan for the crochet help, and the Bondar family for donating the materials for our mitzvah project.

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