The death of a cherished pet creates a sense of loss for adults and produces a predictable chain of emotions. Common symptoms and stages of grief in adults include sadness, guilt, anger, denial, confusion, fear and relief. However, the effects on children can widely vary depending on age and maturity level. The basis for a child’s reaction is his/her ability to understand death.
Ages 2 to 3
Two- and three-year-olds typically have no understanding of death. Instead, they often consider it a form of sleep. A child at this age should be told that his/her pet has died and will not return. Common reactions include temporary loss of speech and generalized distress. The child should be reassured that the pet’s failure to return is unrelated to anything the child may have said or done. Often, a child in this age range will readily accept another pet in place of the deceased one.
Ages 4 to 6
Children in this age range have some understanding of death, but often in a way that relates to a continued existence. The pet may be considered to be living underground while continuing to eat, breathe and play. Alternatively, it may be considered asleep. A return to life may be expected if that child views death as temporary.
A child at this age may feel that any anger he/she had toward the animal may be responsible for the pet’s death. It is especially important that this belief is refuted because it can also translate to the death of family members. A child at this age may also see death as contagious and begin to fear that their own death (or that of others) is imminent. The child should be reassured that his/her death is unlikely.
In addition, manifestations of grief often take the form of disturbances in bladder and bowel control as well as eating and sleeping at this age. This is best managed by conversations that allow the child to express his/her feelings and concerns. Several brief discussions are general more productive than one or two prolonged sessions.
Ages 7 to 9
The irreversibility of death becomes real to children in this age range. A child at this age usually does not personalize death, thinking it cannot happen to him/her. However, he/she may develop concerns about the death of parents or other family members. The child may also become very curious about death and its implications. Parents should be ready to respond openly and honestly to any questions that may arise.
Several manifestations of grief may occur in a child in this age range, including the development of school problems, learning problems, antisocial behavior, hypochondriacal concerns or aggression. Additionally, withdrawal, over-attentiveness or clinging behavior may be seen. Based on common reactions to the loss of parents or siblings for children in this age range, it is likely that these symptoms may not occur immediately; rather, they may occur several weeks or months later.
Ages 10 to 11
Children in this age range generally understand death as natural, inevitable and universal. As a result, these children often react to death in a manner very similar to adults.
Although this age group also typically reacts to death in the same way as adults, many adolescents may also exhibit various forms of denial. This usually results in a lack of emotional display, meaning they experience sincere grief without demonstrating its outward expressions.