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Death-Ed: because abstinence is not an option

Death-Ed aims to normalize and prepare our youth for the ultimate life challenge through which we will all pass.

Photo of Dawn Gross
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

Sexual education in schools began in 1919, with a resultant drop in unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease. Today, there are drills for lockdowns and earthquakes, yet nothing about death and dying, a practice arguably more prevalent and a part of life than sex. Our schools are an entire century behind recognizing the importance of and developing death education. Death-Ed aims to normalize and prepare our youth and families for this essential survival skill.

Updated 7/17/2016:

Modules created for high school Health curriculum will cover the following areas:

1) Creating A Safe Space-establishing ground rules of respect and privacy; practicing listening and story-telling

2) Myth vs Reality-popular television video clips will be shared to compare and contrast factual data regarding care for the seriously ill, rates and types of recovery and prognosis. How we die, depending upon age, race, education and socioeconomic status will also be reviewed.

3) Cultural Diversity-Students will have the opportunity to either share their own cultural rituals/practices/beliefs around death and dying or they may research a culture or practice and share what they have learned with the class.

4) What Matters Most-using the game, "Go Wish" ( students will begin to explore their own values and how to share them with their peers.  They will then have homework to play with their family. Development of an app for GoWish will foster its ease of use while simultaneously expanding its functional capabilities and accessibility (http://

Additional opportunities for students to volunteer with hospice and palliative care teams could be developed to further enhance exposure and comfort with the concept and processes around death and dying.  Follow-up questionnaires several months after these interventions will assess the level of comfort the students have developed around death and dying (http://

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Updated 7/17 and 8/1:
Initial focus groups with students continue to provide enthusiastic support for the concept. Feedback reinforces the approach of utilizing video clips, apps & interactive card game/role playing tools.

We will pilot our curriculum in two private local high schools with demonstrated interest in pioneering programming. The program will begin with a pre-evaluation to assess knowledge about and comfort with death and dying and 12 month post-intervention evaluation.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Curriculum development and models of collaboration with the education system particularly in peer-educator development.
App developer to collaborate on making "Go Wish" virtually accessible by creating "Ripplan" app (see demo video

Tell us about your work experience:

Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH is an ICU & Palliative Care physician, author & has taught Sex-Ed to high school students.

Dawn M. Gross, MD, PhD, palliative care physician, writer & radio host of "Dying To Talk" on 91.7FM KALW has developed & taught nat'l award-winning prenatal Ed in high school.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm


Join the conversation:

Photo of mitch

Hi Dawn and Jessica,

Well done! You could not have timed your idea going to market any better! And what an opportunity to educate young people on morality at a time when they have more than likely experienced the death of a significant other (e.g., a great grandparent). 

I have a two part question regarding curriculum development.

What age do you intend to teach death-ed to within high schools (e.g., will you develop content appropriate for every year group or the same content for every year group)?

And, at what age in a human's lifetime does death affect them the most? I suppose what I'm asking whether there is more value to death education for tennagers (who have typically experienced the concept of death indirectly through the loss of great grandparent and/or grandparent) compared to say, a 50 year old male who has lost his mother. In essence, statistically, at what age do people experience a direct loss to a family member? There may be more demand and value for your concept if the link to death is direct, not indirect. 

Again, this is just a ramble. 

I can't wait to see the finished offering.

Kind regards,

Photo of Paul


From one ramble to another...

The experience of death is all around all of us everyday.

There may be statistics related to your query - my take is that getting caught up in statistics will just get you and others 'caught up'.

Death Ed curriculum materials need to be developed for all age levels of 'kids' - from Pre-Schoolers to College Grads.

And, death positive outlooks on life and living and dying need to be encouraged throughout our culture and throughout all of our varied social strata and communities.

That way, when the 50-year old loses his Mother - he will be just as prepared as the 4-year old Grand-daughter of that same 50-year olds' Mom. Make sense?

It is a cultural and very broad-based attitudinal shift that we're all a part of making happen.

At this point in time, there are various sized pieces of the puzzle being brought into focus by many, many different people and groups.

Within the OpenIDEO right now there are 10 'puzzle piece makers' who've just been recognized, applauded and encouraged for their ideas and projects (out of over 300 different stories/ideas that were originally birthed within this community).

No doubt it's a big shift in consciousness/awareness - and we're a big, multi-talented, inspired, very powerful group of humans who've had enough of some kinds of things and not enough of others.

In brief, more love less fear.

Them's my two cents on the topic for this morning.

Enjoy your day...


Photo of Dawn

Hello Mitch. I so appreciate your thoughts and we couldn't agree more. We recenlty taught our first pilot to high school freshman. You can read a bit about our experience in Jessica's recent oped:

We chose to start with this class for several convenience and logistical reasons. Specifically, all freshman year of high school health ed class is one of the only core classes for all students. Jessica and I have modules that can be expanded and modified to support follow-up/older learners (for example, including Advanced directives workshops). We can also easily imagine modifying the curriculum for younger students similar to Sex-Ed.

Thank you for your interest!

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