“It is a very important topic children may barely touch upon. But eventually they will come across it somehow,” says Chan. “Do we have to wait till death strikes before we start to learn from it?”
Chan shows his students films and plays songs, then he holds discussions afterwards. The aim is to make death and bereavement seem less heavy. Students are invited to join a life experiment by asking what they would want to do if their time on earth were limited. Then they are encouraged to make some changes in life. Chan recalls one student who did not have real or meaningful communication with his sister. The exercise pushed him to reconnect with her.
Apart from lectures, he also arranges for students to visit to the Faculty of Medicine to learn about the dead bodies used for anatomy education. Students can even enroll for an optional visit to a crematorium to experience what it is like behind-the-scenes when the practicalities of death have to be handled.
Chan thinks these activities are a great opportunity for teenagers to reflect upon the value of life during their years at university, when they are in the transition between being students and being regarded as adults. “It is never too young to know about death and dying,” he says.
But for some, death may hit before any such preparation or knowledge. In these cases, life and death education can also be gained from bereavement counselling. Sometimes death may even provide an impetus for life.
Esther Poon Tsui-ying was 14 when she lost her father.
“When he passed away I didn’t know how to adapt to such drastic change. I cried for months,” says Poon. “Schools and textbooks didn’t teach us how to deal with the death of family members.”
Poon was introduced to a bereavement counsellor who asked her to compile a journal about her past experiences with her father. The counsellor asked her to draw pictures and write letters to her dad to express both her thanks and anger towards him.
This helped Poon to come to terms with her feelings, a process that was further helped along by engaging in voluntary work.