A conversation about death, dying and the famous dead

Like all issues of great importance there are those who believe in one thing and there are those who believe in another.

Personally, I reckon that no ill should be spoken of the dead, especially not in their first week of passing.

I wonder if that's a general societal meme regarding the departure of the soul or if it's just something from my own culture?


What do you think?

How were you raised?

You know, while we're on the subject of culture and norms, death is so much a major part of our lives yet it is so rarely discussed in the English language classroom.

Is it because words like funeral, autopsy, grave, headstone, memorial and cancer are not important - that this lexis is a no-go area?

Or is it because it's so emotive and teachers may have to deal with tears?

I remember once, it was such an odd situation because although he was a part of a group, for three weeks straight P was my only student. I have no idea how we ended up talking about it - usually he was a happy, dynamic man who laughed and made the other students laugh - yet when we were alone, bit by bit, the very awful story of his young son's death came out.

The freaky part was that P's son had known he was dying a year before he actually did and it was this that was ripping my student's heart out. His son had actually said things like "I won't be here for that next year," "Klaus will miss me when I'm gone" and "You don't need to buy me a bicycle, I won't use it for long and it's a lot of money."

However, instead of going to see a medical specialist, his parents had taken him to see a psychologist to probe into the boy's death complex.

The autopsy later revealed a brain tumor.

He told me that he and his wife never discussed it anymore, that two years on they were just trying to put their lives back together again however he felt guilty that he hadn't done the 'right thing,' that he hadn't taken his boy seriously.

So I listened and gave him the vocabulary he needed to express himself adequately while helping him let go of some of his pain. And, yes, I corrected his English, throughout his tears.

gravesMichael Jackson and Farah Fawcett left us this week and if your students are in the 30 - 60 year old range, there's a real good chance they will want to talk about their passing with you.

So my tip is to do this lesson, dogme style.

You don't really need to prepare anything, it's pretty obvious what will come out in the conversation: Farah's beauty, Michael's skin condition, the controversies, the illnesses, the memory of how Princess Diana died in the same week as Mother Teresa ...if they bring it up, it's simply the most perfect opportunity to deal with teaching this type of lexis and expressions of sympathy and empathy, safely.

So go on ahead and let it RIP.


p.s humor is allowed.

Useful links:

Edu-bloggers on the same subject:
Larry Ferlazzo has put together a list of excellent sites you can use.
Jeffrey Hill has done a posting on using a cartoon of Michael Jackson
Anne Hodgson has typed out the lyrics for Dangerous (for students)

From the media:

Farah Fawcett
Michael Jackson
My favorite video of Michael Jackson is below. Which was your favorite? What do you most remember of Farah Fawcett?

Go in peace, Michael. Thank you so much for giving us the music, the dance and the memories.

Farah, may the Angels be charmed by your laughter but may they also send you quickly back.

8 Responses to “A conversation about death, dying and the famous dead”

  • Deborah Corbett says:
    June 28, 2009

    It can be difficult. My husband died two months ago and I have told all my clients and they have been very accommodating with giving me a bit of time. The Thai students shared their ideas on the soul and how I will rejoin my husband one day - quite matter of factly. However, my experience teaching migrants, often refugees is a little different. Often we don't have any idea of the trauma they have gone through. One day (many years ago) a student came to class dressed in black and I politely asked if someone had died. Her whole family had been blown up in Lebanon. So it is very hard to deal with that - but we did by just comforting her and letting her grieve in class.

    June 28, 2009

    Hi Deborah,

    Thank you very much sharing your own personal story.

    I deliberated on doing this posting quite a bit because it is such an emotive issue - yet stories like these do exist and like in your case, teachers also have to deal with deaths in their own families as well.

    Your students got the chance to talk to you about you, about their cultural beliefs regarding your husband's soul and aside from the fact that it was a good context to learn and use this lexis and functional language, they got to share the very human experience of expressing empathy and sympathy in another language.

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts here.

  • Anonymous says:
    June 28, 2009

    In France, people don't talk much about eventual death, but they sure love to talk about illnesses. The tradition around the dead is very strong esp., with older folks; going to visit the tombs, decorating with flowers, etc. Toussaint (Nov.1st) is their day of remembering the dead.

  • Bethany Cagnol says:
    June 28, 2009

    I second Dedene's comment on how the French don't (won't) talk about death. Once, I had attended a French funeral and was blown away by how different it was compared to funerals in America. So, being the "out-of-the-box" teacher I am, I turned it into a cultural awareness lesson with my French adults. They were pretty cold to the idea...until we brought up the leading causes of death in France and America. Talking about illness: bingo! Talking about death: get ready for the sound of chirping crickets in the classroom.

    June 28, 2009

    Dedene & Bethany,

    That's so interesting - culture always is - in my own, to talk about illness is taboo (it's depressing and Caribs don't like being depressed LOL) but once someone's gone it's pretty okay to talk about so and so who is now dancing with the angels or fanning the devils!

    I had a really interesting conversation with a South African friend yesterday and she suggested that cultures who have a "concept" of an afterlife are comfortable with it and cultures that don't, aren't - but saying that the French are catholic, right?

    It's so interesting how on some levels people are so similar and others, 100% different!


  • Natasa says:
    June 29, 2009

    Death is taboo here in Serbia and so is illness. Even a simple "Have you ever broken a bone?" can cause unpleasant silence in class. However, we can't keep real life safely outside the classroom door and sometimes it comes flooding in.
    It was the last class before Christmas and only three girls were present. We started talking about the important men in our lives (I had just done Auld Lang Syne with them) when one of the girls suddenly shared a very traumatic story from her past. I will not go into detail here, but it was a very emotional moment. I am not ashamed to say that we spent the rest of the class talking in Serbian (they were elementary students) and we all tried to do our best for her.
    I have always believed that my job is to care, not just to teach. The problem here is that we are not properly trained to deal with these situations. They teach us how to deal with anger, but they don't teach us how to deal with tears.
    This is a very brave post, Karenne, and a very important one.

  • Vicki Hollett says:
    July 23, 2010

    I think death and grief might become easier topics to address with students (and any other fellow human beings) as we get older - just because we're statistically more likely to have had to have deal with them ourselves. The sad fact is that the older we get, the more probable it is that we will have suffered the death of someone close to us.

    I've personally experienced the death of much loved parents and even a much loved sibling - but I read this I thought 'The death of a child. Oh my. What could I possibly say to help a student coping with that?'

    But actually, if I think about it, I think we might all be able to say a lot that could give comfort. If we’re honest and speak from our hearts, we can share experiences – albeit acknowledging that our experiences will have been different – and we can just listen, pay attention and try to understand.

    Grief has stages – it often starts with a mind numbing shock, followed by anger (how could they do this to us), sometimes guilt (I should have done this or that) and then the awful desolation and despair as we have to come to terms that they are never coming back.

    It's the pits.

    But the trite phrase ‘life goes on’ is very real. Goodness knows how it happens, but it’s right there in the statistics that it really does happen. Human beings come back. Give us time and some kind of genetic resilience puts us back into functioning mode after disasters somehow, and we carry on and start turning new corners in our lives.

    And maybe that’s something we can remind one another when we’re suffering from loss. Life can be full of interesting and delightful surprises and we never know what’s waiting around the corner. At some point, we do have to stand up, walk on and turn round that corner to find out though.

    July 23, 2010

    Thank you so much, Vicki.

    Yes and I know it sounds strange but I think the "comfort of strangers" is one of the most powerful expressions of comfort, someone can receive.

    Sometimes, for our students, expressing themselves in another language, with someone who is not a part of their everyday lives, gives them the liberty to say exactly what they need to say - in ways that close family and friends are unable to do.


Visitors and Regular Readers


FEEDJIT Live Traffic Feed

Communities of Practice

Blog Archive

Directories, catalogs and Back Links

Adult Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog Directory Add to Technorati Favorites

The EFL ESL Blog List TotalESL.com - ESL/EFL/TEFL Teaching Jobs and Teacher Resumes

International Blogging Directory

Recent Posts

Simply Conversations

Pedagogically sound materials designed to get your students actively talking:

Free Samples
Conversation Control

General English
Business English

Learn more on why these work