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Pathmaps: Death of a Pet
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For: Lower, Middle School
Pathmaps Points: Transformative Experiences & Relationships

Summary: Our culture does little to prepare us for the death of a loved one, let alone for dealing with our own mortality. We can help our students with a variety of aspects of spiritual growth, well as for the social and psychological issues involved, by addressing something that many of them have already faced, or may face in the coming years: the death of a pet. Death touches a variety of the facets of spiritual life: our values and beliefs, relationships, personal growth. Depending on the case, it may also help us to develop more intentionality in our actions, or further our senses of awe and mystery, and self knowledge.

Introduce by asking students if anyone has lost a pet, and perhaps ask a couple of them to talk about the loss and how it affected different members of the family. Asking the question both offers an opportunity to talk—if the student wishes—and protects the student if he or she cannot easily express feelings, and would prefer to describe how parents, brothers, and sisters reacted. It also helps to make the point that human beings have a number of different, not necessarily better or worse, ways of reacting.

A variety of activities can then be added, depending on the group and the amount of time available. This exercise can be spread over several days or weeks in the classroom.

Write your pet’s obituary, after reading obituaries in the newspaper. These help focus on important relationships and significant accomplishments in the pet’s life (tricks learned, ways of reacting to different ways of being held or stroked, etc.)

How did the pet change your life?

Write a letter to the pet
Address the good things you did together, difficult moments you might have gone through together, times the pet might have disappointed you or made you mad (“he chewed a finger off my catcher’s mitt”). Tell your pet what you miss most, and what you might do differently if you could start your relationship over again. Did you learn anything about yourself from your pet? If so, include it in the letter.

Conversation with the pet after it has died
Address issues like those described above for the letter. Conversations can be done in private, at home, for students to debrief later, or in groups where there is significant safety and support, some students might be willing to do a conversation while the group is present.

Interview family and write an article

Create a headstone
This might be a culmination exercise. Students may not even be familiar with headstones. All have birth and death dates, but many headstones include something significant about the pet. Because of space, however, the text must be very short, and this forces the selection of short essentials.

Finish this exercise helping students to focus on some of the great spiritual questions involved:

How the exercise has helped you think about the importance of life?
Why we are here?
What we should be doing with our lives?
Would you describe certain relationships as "sacred"? Why or why not? If so, what does that word mean in this context?


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