The children befriending terminally ill people to learn about death

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Doris and Sana help each other fix the butterfly pins in their paper daffodils and Sana starts writing carefully on one of the petals.

"I've not done so much sticking and glittering since I was at school!" laughs Doris. "And that was over 70 years ago. I'm having such fun with the children."

Ten-year-old Sana looks up and smiles at Doris. "Doris is my pal," she tells me. "I know she's quite ill but I don't like to talk to her about it because I'm a bit frightened to talk about people who are..." She pauses and looks tentatively at Doris. "Who are... not going to get better."

The Daffodil Project, run by the Marie Curie Cancer Care Charity, aims to help 10 and 11-year-olds understand the idea of incurable illness and loss by inviting them to a hospice in Newcastle to befriend some terminally ill patients over a four-week period.

But is it brutal exposure or plain common sense?

'Whispering behind doors'

Doris takes Sana's hand in hers and laughs. "You mustn't be scared about talking about my illness, pet," she reassures her. "You see I've got cancer in my chest and it's true that I'm dying but I'm not going to burst into tears about that... I have some lovely days and I particularly look forward to my Fridays when you're here."

The children are "palled up" with a patient from the hospice and over a four week period they are encouraged to explore together the sentiments surrounding incurable illness and loss while they take part in arts and crafts activities and group discussions.

About 5% of children will have experienced the death of a parent by the time they are 16, while 92% will have lost someone important to them.

Marie Curie Hospice Patients and pupils work together to create paper daffodils with inscribed petals

"The idea is not to rub the children's faces in it," explains Ged Walker, the Hospice Day Services Manager. "And we do try to choose patients who are well enough to last the four week course. But death is a part of life and children need to know about dying and loss. It's all the whispering behind doors and the secrets that scares them."

In another part of the room, 85-year-old Norman, dapper in his navy tie and blazer, is teasing the children he's been paired up with, telling them they're a noisy nuisance.

"Norman's my favourite pal here," grins 10-year-old Tammilee, and then she continues with a childish bluntness: "I mean I thought it would be so dull coming to this hospice. I thought we'd just sit around being really quiet with lots of boring sick people in beds - but my pal Norman makes me laugh and you can't even tell he's ill."

Norman has prostate cancer which has spread to his bones but he winks at me and assures me he doesn't take offence at the children's comments.

"I was worried for them," he says. "They're so young and I was worried they'd see things that they shouldn't see and which would spoil their innocence. But they don't seem upset. Then again, they're not shown the people on machines and breathing tubes."

Distraught

Tamilee's classmate Tayaib tells me confidently that he already knows quite a bit about death because he once went to the funeral of a distant relative. But before he came to the hospice he admits he was worried that he might catch cancer from one of the patients or see dead bodies.

I ask him if he knows that Norman will die one day because his illness can't be cured and he twists his daffodil pin in his fingers and speaks without looking up.

"It makes me very, very sad to think about that," he mutters. "Because these are good people."

Marie Curie Hospice Messages included on the Daffodils include: "They help me forget my illness..."

At any one time, about 70% of schools have a bereaved pupil in their care. One of the Daffodil Project's aims is to equip the children with the emotional literacy they need to express their feelings when they suffer bereavement and are grieving.

The project is supervised by a young people's counsellor, Dawn Mason, who reassures the children that it is perfectly acceptable to feel sad about what's happening to their "pals". During the pilot project, one of the patients died during the course and she had to deal with the distraught little boy he'd been buddied with.

"We visited the school and told the children during assembly what had happened," Dawn explains. "But of course, when the children came to the hospice, the child who had been his 'pal' was very tearful when he saw the empty chair." She smiles.

"But we had a lovely session where we remembered nice things about the patient and talked about how we could offer comfort to his pal."

'See you soon'

Comfort is exactly the word that 42-year-old cancer sufferer Andy uses to describe his experience of the Daffodil project. He has told the children that he is really Superman, and the proof of his claim is that despite the seriousness of his illness, he's still alive.

The children pat his shoulder and give him hugs and agree he must have special powers.

"It's allowed me to be a kid again," Andy laughs. "And while the kids are here, I just completely forget about my illness."

As the children collect their Daffodil Project certificates and prepare to say goodbye to their "pals", they talk about what they've learnt about hospices and sick people.

Marie Curie Hospice in Newcastle  The project is supervised by a young people's counsellor who reassures the children that it is perfectly acceptable to feel sad about what's happening

Malik says he's learnt more about giving, Tammilee says she's understood that the dying can still enjoy the life they have left and Sana holds Doris's hand and says shyly that that meeting Doris has made her want to change her own life to be as caring and kind as her pal.

A tape recorder is produced and the children sing along to a backing track of Bob Marley's Three Little Birds. When they reach the line "This is my message to you," the children point to his or her particular "pal".

"See you soon Superman!" shouts Tammilee as she hugs Andy goodbye. I'm still not quite sure she really understands the implications of Andy's cancer but she's certainly at ease being with him.

When they've gone, Andy suddenly looks very tired and I see he's trying hard not to cry.

"Would I do this again?" he asks. "I'd leap at the chance."

You can hear Emma Jane's report from Newcastle on Radio 4's PM programme, from 17:00 BST on Wednesday, 17 July.

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