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Message in a bottle

To provide a response to unexpected change or sudden bereavement in the school.

by The Revd Alan M. Barker

Suitable for Whole School (Pri)


To provide a response to unexpected change or sudden bereavement in the school.

Preparation and materials

  • A clear plastic bottle with a note inside it: ‘Thinking of you’.

  • If this assembly is being used when the school is facing bereavement, a tribute table might be constructed using a suitable picture and words, sand, pebbles, shells; include a number of small, empty bottles.


If the school is facing bereavement

Begin by outlining the circumstances and reflect the mixed emotions of pride and sorrow that are felt. Move on to points 1 to 4 below, adapting as appropriate.

Give the children the opportunity to place their thoughts in the bottles on the tribute table. Remind them that they may talk with members of staff and support services should they wish.

Unexpected change

  1. Introduce the theme by referring to a very moving story carried in the news during August 2010 (Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2010).

    A group of workers clearing up spilt oil in the Gulf of Mexico found a message in a bottle. Sadly, the message marked the death of a soldier who had been serving in Afghanistan. It had been written by the mother of Private James Prosser, who had been killed by a roadside bomb in September 2009. The bottle had been tossed into the sea from a boat while James’ family were on holiday in Barbados. They had gone there because they felt it would be too difficult to face Christmas at home without him.

    The bottle floated in the sea for 1,300 miles and was eventually fished out of the water by a group of men cleaning the beaches on Horn Island, off Louisiana. When they read the message about James, they wrote a letter to his family. It read:

    ‘Words cannot express our heartfelt sympathy for your family over the loss of James. We extend our gratitude to James for the service he did in Afghanistan and recognize the courage, strength and bravery it requires to serve in the armed forces. Finding that bottle is something we will never forget.’

    When we face unexpected change it’s very important to know that others understand how we feel (that’s what sympathy means).
  2. It’s also helpful to try to express our feelings. That’s why James’ mother wrote her message and put it in a bottle. She said, ‘I wanted to make everyone aware that we are responsible for the world we live in, and not to forget the soldiers who have given up their lives.’
  3. The men who found the bottle were dealing with unexpected change of a different kind. After the explosion of the oil rig, an enormous quantity of oil spilled into the sea and was washed up on to beaches. Marine plants and creatures were destroyed and beautiful places spoiled. This disaster made everyone aware that we are responsible for the world we live in.

    A desire to change things for the better is another way of responding positively to upsetting news.
  4. Refer to the note in the bottle and the reply sent by the men who found it. Invite members of the school community to think of people who have inspired and helped them.

    How would they wish to change the world for the better?

    What short message of hope might they wish to place in a bottle?

Time for reflection

(Church schools may wish to place a Bible text inside a bottle to introduce a period of reflection, for example: Jesus said, ‘Remember, I am with you always’ (Matthew 28.20).)

Invite everyone to remember the importance of understanding and sympathy, and to consider how they might offer comfort and encouragement at times of unexpected change.

Allow a short time for quiet personal thought and prayer.


‘Kum ba ya’ (Come and Praise, 68)

‘Make me a channel of your peace’ (‘The Prayer of St Francis’) (Come and Praise, 147)

You could download ‘Message in a bottle’ by the Police to play as the children leave.

Publication date: July 2011   (Vol.13 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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