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The real ‘Fifth Beatle’? On death and dying and saying ‘Goodbye’

Date posted: Friday 5th September 2014


So It Goes: a play about speaking about the unspeakable, without saying anything

In all my posts I try to say something funny about communication and link everything to classic tunes from the 1960s and 70s. However, I’m not one to make jokes about people dying or the grief that is felt by those left behind. And just for once I’m going to use the post to shamelessly advertise someone else’s work.

So It Goes is a play that has just finished a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe. I haven’t seen it yet, but hope that it comes to London. Then I can experience for myself how Hannah Moss manages to communicate how she felt/feels about her dad, Mike Moss, dying of cancer when Hannah was 17. For many years Hannah had been unable to talk about how she felt, and says that she never actually said ‘goodbye’ to her dad. Now aged 25, Hannah has created a play with no words, which by all accounts explains beautifully how she felt, how she now feels, and explores the grieving process.

Mike Moss was a primary school teacher with a passion for science. I met him briefly on my final teaching practice, and remember him wearing shorts all day (it was summer). He was totally enthused by sharing science with children, and gave me the best piece of advice: ‘The best way to set young children thinking in a scientific way is for the teacher to think out loud, ‘I wonder what would happen if we…’ This implies that the outcome of an action (e.g. firing a jet of water from a hosepipe at a toy boat in a paddling pool) is uncertain, until we actually do it together. Then the adult and children can talk about what actually happened.

This piece of advice transformed my teaching. Up to that point I had been telling young children why things happened. They were either too young to understand what I was talking about, or couldn’t see the point. By saying, ‘I wonder what will happen if we…’ either as a planned experiment or when children are playing spontaneously, you are also suggesting to the children that you, the adult, are going to stick around and explore with them. Then you can ask the genuine question, ‘I wonder why that happened?’ Then you wait and listen for the children’s explanations.

I have Mike Moss to thank for this small piece of advice, which in a few sentences made me a better teacher. As I was to learn over many years working with children, you can’t always put into words what you mean: possibly because you don’t have the vocabulary to express what you mean or how you feel. Sue Thomas and Katja O’Neill of Sign 4 Learning are helping children to express their feelings and manage their emotions by linking key vocabulary items with signs from British Sign Language (BSL). For example, I have heard adults tell groups of young children that their behaviour makes the adult feel ‘sad’. This might include, ‘I feel sad because you are keeping me waiting to tell this story.’ This is actually totally incorrect. You might feel sad when someone dies or your girlfriend dumps you or your parents break up… in other words when you feel a terrible loss. But hopefully you won’t feel like that when your Reception class are hot and bothered and can’t keep still on the carpet because a fly has entered the room and is buzzing round on the window.

It’s so much better to be able to use accurate words with children, like ‘disappointed’ or ‘frustrated’, and for children to do the same. This is what very young children, who have been involved in Signs 4 Feelings & Behaviour can now do. Through stories and discussion, linked to key vocabulary and using the BSL signs that go with it, adults are able to help children explore their emotions and more accurately describe how they feel.

The Beatles on the roof: where’s Mike?

I have several friends who worked with Mike, and they all have a ‘Mike Moss story’ to tell (all of them affectionate and in some way inspiring). One involved The Beatles. Mike was from Liverpool, and apparently went to the same school as Paul McCartney. This nugget of information got around Year 6, and inspired some of the children to make up a play about how Mike had been invited to join The Beatles, but turned them down because he wanted to be an inspirational science teacher.

Mike may not have joined The Beatles, but in his own way became a legend. And I wonder what will happen when I finally get to see Hannah’s play. Will I react like the Evening Standard reviewer, (‘I told myself I wouldn’t cry – and held firm until the final five minutes’.)

Let’s see what happens. Thanks Hannah. I read that the whole process of creating the play has had a huge impact on you. I also read that it has had a huge impact on your audiences.

For more information about So It Goes visit

Take care out there


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14 responses to “The real ‘Fifth Beatle’? On death and dying and saying ‘Goodbye’”

  1. Thanks for this interesting article Michael. I think the title So It Goes comes from a Kurt Vonnegut book, possibly Slaughterhouse Five.
    My husband died very suddenly nearly eight years ago and I recently wrote a children’s book to help young children talk about their feelings. I wrote it as our young grandchildren asked so many questions that I couldn’t answer. The expression I use in the book is “Its just the way it goes” – very similar sentiment to Hannah’s. Ive done nothing with the book, keep meaning to approach an agent or publisher but life keeps getting in the way!
    Any opportunity for people to talk about death and grieving, in my view, is good. I look forward to seeing the play.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Carolyn. Yes, you are right about talking about grief… And a feelings. ‘sad’ is such an overused word with children.
      I had the chance to talk to Michael Rosen about his children’s book, and that was very interesting too.
      The Child Bereavement Trust do grat work with children. I have several of their publications.
      Do try and get your book published!!
      Very best wishes

  2. mary haggett says:

    Hi Michael
    Just wanted to endorse your recommendation of the ‘sign4’ series to refine vocabulary used by both children and adults – it’s an effective way of helping children be more specific, and so of expanding their ability to empathise with others, even though they may not share many actual words if they have different first languages – the signs really help bridge communication gaps.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Mary. I am a great supporter of Sue Thomas and Katja O’Neill’s work with BSL. Your comments have just taken my understanding of this work up a level. Katja and Sue are now working on a new project, supporting children who are involved in difficult family relationships. It’s important work.
      Hannah Moss’s play sounds like a huge emotional experience, and I’m hoping that after the success of the Edinburgh run that it will be performed elsewhere.
      Best wishes

  3. Hi Michael,
    I had heard about Hannah’s play, now I really want to see it! As up to 93% of what we say is non verbal, Sue and I passionately believe in adding more body language/ signs/ facial expressions to spoken language to help children with their receptive and expressive language.
    Thank you, Mary, for your kind endorsement of our work! May I ask you if we can use your quote?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Katja! Yes, and most of the emotional content of non verbal communication of emotion is in tone of voice combined with facial expression.
      I hope Hannah’s play reaches a very wide audience, but what must be the emotional impact on the cast each night? It must be a hugely brave undertaking.
      Great to hear from you and keep up your pioneering work!

  4. Hi again Michael

    Very interesting post. I’m currently working on a new project called “When a child dies” , a CD and book combination aimed at supporting teachers. In the middle of doing a lot of reading and contacts with Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish and Helen House to gather tracks for the CD. If you could put Carolyn in touch with me, that would be a help too.

    Keep up the good work.


    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Trevor!!
      I wondered how long it would be before Fishy Music would be adding your unique contribution to this vitally important area for children who are bereaved, and the adults who care for them.
      Good luck with your work, and keep us posted!

  5. Hi Michael I will look out for this play.
    Re bereavement at school( ie when we lose a pupil or someone in the school community) We have to accept that the majority of our pupils in an SLD school will be, to a greater or lesser extent, struggling with expression and receptive language. Therefore when something as massive as a death occurs we have to be extra careful to be very clear about what we are saying. In my teaching career I have experienced on average a loss for each year, either of a current, or just graduated pupil. The emotional toll remains extreme and painful each time. But hopefully we learn each time to help the rest of the community through a difficult time by making sure we are able to understand each other and express ours feelings and needs.
    Big subject, however…. Rule of thumb, from my perspective. Avoid direct allegories and “magical” explanations. E.g. We are all feeling sad because someone has died. The reason we are so sad is because we will never be able to speak to that person or see them again, and that was something that made us happy. We can look at pictures etc and remember them and talk about them and that may well make us feel better as well as a whole lot of other emotions which are OK to experience (including anger). BUT the person has not “gone to heaven” “are always with us” etc.
    Sounds really horrible like this in a theoretical way doesn’t it and I accept that some people may find this approach hard to accept on a number of levels. It’s a massive subject and has as many twists and turns as there are individuals. But my general point is that when communicating with an individual or a community that self evidently need clear, honest information in order to survive and thrive….this is a time when that communication really needs to be clear and unambiguous.
    In my experience there are no rules for being bereaved, no clear cut stages of grief. (cf The Simpsons when Homer is told he has hours to live by the chuckling doctor… brilliant as always.sorry no youtube link but try and find it)

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Tim. It’s great to hear from you again. I thought we had ‘lost’ you, If you know what I mean. death is probably the most tricky subject to talk about in school: not from the children’s point of view, but because adults have very different views on how children should talk about death.
      I worked for several years with children with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, where the children have a shortened life expectancy. The complexity of my job was helping the adults in the school to have a common view about children. Your words are very wise.
      Thanks again

      • Not lost, or even gone before (CF Cream “Your baby has gone down the plughole”)
        Bereavement is so culture specific as well isn’t it. In general I would say we in UK are a little uptight and unable to access or express the strong emotions it brings up. BUT that is a massive generalization, as the UK does thankfully encompass many different cultures, all of which understand life /death in a variety ways.
        To be honest being a WASP male even with some first hand experience of traumatic bereavement the whole thing still scares the hell out of me.Mainly because,like taxes, it is an unavoidable inevitability

        • Michael Jones says:

          Hi Tim
          Thanks for your thoughts. I suppose that the feeling of bereavement, and the stages of grieving, are universal, while the cultural attitudes towards expressing emotions vary. Also the way that people deal with death and dying, including funerals, are culture-specific.
          I had a little bit to do the Child Bereavement Trust a few years ago, and they are an excellent organisation.
          Good to hear from you

          • That’s some interesting points. I have no academic reading or research to back this up but purely intuitively I would agree that the feeling of bereavement is probably universal but that the relationship between the expressing of emotion and cultural norms is significantly more than not universal but is informed by all kinds of socio economic and cultural influences, working in all sorts of interconnected ways.E.G. I only recently became aware of the speed with which it appears to be normal for the Northern Irish Protestant community to expedite funerals. I was aware that some cultures with middle eastern antecedents do this and assumed that the reason was historical /climactic.
            Just taking the speed of burial/burial ritual as one example: The cumulative effect over years of that as a practice surely must have an effect on how, where and when the bereaved can express themselves.
            Thanks for the CBT heads up, sadly we will always need to keep on top of handling this issue as well as we possibly can

          • Michael Jones says:

            Hi again Tim
            That all makes very good sense. The Child Bereavement Trust materials are excellent, in relation to children dying, and helping children understand death.
            From my experience, it’s the adults in schools who need help with exploring their own feelings about death, before they can help the children.
            This was very clear in my work with children with Duchenne Musculsr Dystrophy and shortened life expectancy. The adults’ confused attitude towards the children often led to significant consequences for the children. This included the adults being in denial, leading to the children being treated quite harshly, or overcompensating by overindulging the children. Neither of these responses added to the children’s quality of life. However, support from trained professionals was very helpful, I’m pleased to say.
            Very best wishes and thanks for your input

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