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Teaching kids about the end of life

Concordia Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.
Concordia Cemetery in El Paso, Texas.
Melissa Sargent

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Three things are certain in life:  Death, sex and money.

At home and school we learn about the last two, but talking about death ... not so much.

Because of this one physician says kids are ill-equipped to understand some of the tough decisions made at the end of life. So she designed a class to deal with it.

Dr. Jessica Zitter practices palliative  medicine at Highland Hospital in Oakland and is the author of Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life.  She joined Take Two to talk about death education. 

On how she structured her death education class

It was a two session class, with the first debunking the media portrayal of how hospitals and doctors can really help when people start to approach the end of life. We showed a clip from [the TV show] 'Grey's Anatomy.' The kids all really loved it. But then we went on say this is really not how it happens. We went on to gently talk about how it does happen in an intensive care unit... and talk about what really happens to bodies as they start to die and especially as we start to prop them up on machines. The kids were really fascinated  and very surprised.

On what Hollywood gets most incorrect about death

I think that Hollywood glamorizes technology and action and resuscitation. Code Blue! Surgery! ER!   I think what's missing is that in fact by the time the majority of people are coming to the point where their heart is going to stop and they're going to need a code blue or they're so sick to the point that they're going to need a major operation, many of those people have come to a point where their bodies have started to declare that they're dying. So a lot of the patients that really do end up in the ICU are so debilitated that these types of approaches aren't going to help them. They're going to make things worse.

On how kids learned what would be important as they died.

Once we had debunked this media portrayal of death,  then we started to build up another process, to encourage them to think about how they wanted to live their lives all the way to the end. What are the things that are important to them?

We did this by using this really fun game called 'Go Wish.' It's a card game. Each kid gets a deck of 36 cards and on each card is something that's important to them. 'Being able to taste food,' 'Having family around,' 'Not being alone.' So many things. And we asked them to basically play with the cards with each other in small groups so they could talk about what was the most important things to them in their lives. They had the most incredible conversations, some sad, some happy. A lot of kids said they didn't want to be a burden on their family, which I thought was a really powerful thing to hear from a kid. 

To hear the interview, click on the blue Media Player above.