The Current

Why an ICU doctor says death ed is as essential as sex ed in high school

Teens already learn sex ed in school, so why not death ed too? The Current speaks to a palliative care doctor who says high school students should be taught about death and dying.
Dr. Jessica Zitter, who practices both critical and palliative care medicine, says high school students should be taught about death and dying. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

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If sex ed exists in high school curriculums, why not death ed?

It's an idea some doctors, palliative care advocates and educators are calling for. They say that just as sex is a natural part of the life cycle, so too is death — and schools have a role in preparing students for this inevitable reality.

"I really think that like any other public health issue, this is something that for the health of our society every single person needs to be educated about," Dr. Jessica Zitter tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe. 

RelatedFirst, Sex Ed. Then Death Ed.

The Montreal native practices clinical and palliative care medicine at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. and is an outspoken advocate for more well-informed end-of-life decision-making for patients and their families. She draws on her experience working in the ICU in her new book Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. 
Like sex ed in high school, Dr. Jessica Zitter says death ed is "going to become also very clear that this is an essential part of our high school education.' (Simon James/flickr cc)

But Dr. Zitter says the first step in opening up more frank conversations about death and dying needs to happen in the classroom with high school kids. 

"I think if we can start by unifying our education systems and getting all of our children educated, it will start becoming something where everybody understands the importance of learning about this, and then setting forward their own preferences and values so that people have that information out there," Dr. Zitter says.

She tells Crowe that when asked to speak about death in her daughter's school, "the kids were really receptive and open and interested."

'It's kind of our last taboo subject'

The idea has its champions in Canada, too.

"I think it's time that we take death out of the closet," says Kathy Kortes-Miller, an assistant professor at Lakehead University's School of Social Work. She points out that approximately 10 to 15 per cent of students in Canadian classrooms are grieving a loss or anticipating the death of someone close to them.

"It's kind of our last taboo subject. And as educators, and as Canadians in general, we have no choice about whether or not we will learn about death, but we have some choice about how we learn about it," Kortes-Miller says.

"And I think our education system can play an integral part in this." 
Approximately 10 to 15 per cent of students in Canadian classrooms are grieving a loss or anticipating the death of someone close to them, says Kathy Kortes-Miller. (Ezra Acayan/Reuters)

Bonnie Tompkins agrees. As the compassionate communities national lead for Pallium Canada — a group that aims to improve the quality of palliative care services through education — she says schools have a key role to play in normalizing the conversation around death, dying, loss and caregiving.

Tompkins says many teachers are looking for guidance about how to address the subject of death in the classroom.

"[In] one of the focus groups that I ran, I had a teacher who was dying," Tompkins tells Crowe.

"She taught a Grade 2 class. And she said, 'I'm here because I don't know how to tell my students and I need help.' So you know, that will forever be stuck with me. So I think there is a lot of interest for sure across Canada and worldwide for some sort of school piece."

Asked how they would respond to parents who might argue schools have no place wading into such a sensitive subject, both Tompkins and Kortes-Miller say consulting the families of students would be a necessary component of any form of death ed.

"Getting the parents on board is essential," says Kortes-Miller.

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino.