No one likes to talk about dying and death – but it's something Verena Heinrich does in her spare time. The TUM student does volunteer work for the project "Hospiz macht Schule", initiated by the network of hospices and palliative institutions in the district of Munich. Together with other volunteers, she visits schools and talks to the school pupils about the last phase of life.
Verena, what exactly do you do at "Hospiz macht Schule"?
Together with four other colleagues from the Hospice Association, I visit the 3rd class of a primary school in the district of Munich for one week to talk to the children about becoming and passing away, about illness and suffering, dying and death, mourning and comforting. We create posters, watch movies, talk … and the children are supposed to write letters to their parents. Of course, we don't rush to the point: The week starts off with the issue of change. Then, we talk about situations in which we feel either good or bad. Later, we discuss the issue of getting older – and from the middle of the week onwards, we talk about death and an afterlife.
How do the children react?
They are amazingly open. Many children have made experiences with death in their families, for example if their grandfather has died, or a pet. In the families, the issue is often not addressed adequately, because it's hard for the adults. But the children are usually not biased; they are quite relaxed when talking about the end of life. They have so many questions, it's incredible – not only about death itself, but also about diseases such as Ebola or cancer. Also, the reactions always show me how smart kids are in the third grade already.
How do children imagine death?
Many children I have spoken with in the course of the project imagine that they will turn into an animal or a cloud in the sky when they die. One boy painted a red carpet that led to a limousine in which dying people are driven away into eternity. Another boy drew only a single dot, representing the "nothing" that – from his point of view – comes after death.
There are more amusing pastimes. Why do you work for "Hospiz macht Schule"?
I have normal hobbies too, but I think it's important to help children to deal with the issue of death, since this is actually quite a taboo subject in our society. "Palliative" refers to the phase at the end of life – and this phase can be very long. The sick and elderly should be able to remain a part of society instead of being excluded, waiting for their end to come. Young people must be aware of that. For example, it's important to convince the children that they don't have to be afraid of their grandfather just because he might be sick.
As a student of Medicine, you are often confronted with death. Has the project changed your attitude?
It has helped me to deal with the issue of death personally too, not only in the scope of my studies. Anyway, when working for "Hospiz macht Schule", I'm not really confronted with death, since working with the children is only theoretical. Also – even though this might sound a bit macabre – it's a lot of fun. Both parties benefit from the project. It's very touching for me to experience how the subject creates togetherness. Thus, during that week, one boy told me about his parents' divorce. This was just something that surfaced – and I'm sure it did him good to be able to speak out.
What occurrence was the most impressive for you?
At the end of the week, the children's parents and grandparents came round for a final discussion. One of the grandfathers was very skeptical about our project and moaned: "What do you learn there?" A girl answered: "That you don't have to be afraid about death!"
(Interview: Sabrina Czechofsky)
Verena Heinrich (24) is in her 10th semester of Medicine at TUM. After her semester abroad in Istanbul, she came across the project "Hospiz macht Schule" and joined the network of hospices and palliative institutions in the district of Munich at the beginning of 2015. In the district of Munich, the volunteers visit primary schools about four times a year to carry out a project week – in the presence of the teacher –focusing on subjects such as life and death, mourning and comforting.
Anyone who is interested can get involved. Just contact Matthias Keitel of the network of hospices and palliative institutions (Hospiz- und Palliativnetzwerk) via www.hospizundpalliativnetzwerk.de or by calling +49 (157) 72 996 641 (mobile). The training sessions are free of charge.
Hospiz- und Palliativnetzwerk at Facebook