The death of a family pet may be a child’s first encounter with death and dying, and is one of the hardest facts of life to explain. How it is handled can have a far-reaching impact. Children often view their relationship with a pet as indefinite and don’t understand that animals are on a different biological clock, or that illness or injury may make euthanasia the best option. Older children have a better understanding that all living things eventually die, and once the grief passes, can remember pets with more
love than hurt. At all ages, honesty is the best policy. Experts recommend the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ and explain the permanence of death.
A child’s ability to understand what death means depends on his/her age and emotional development. The general guideline below helps describe the perception of death by age group:
Under 2: A child feels and responds to a pet’s death, based on the reaction of those nearby, and picks up the stress felt by family members.
2 to 5: A child misses the animal as a playmate, but not necessarily as a love
object. They will see death as a temporary state. As they begin to perceive the trauma around them, they may temporarily regress in their behavior.
5 to 9: A child begins to perceive death as permanent, but may indulge in
“magical thinking”, believing that death can be defied or bargained with. This is when children recognize a correlation between what they think and what happens. For instance, a child may resent taking care of the pet and wish – however briefly – that the pet would die. If the pet then dies, the child can be consumed with guilt. Parents need to reassure children that they did not cause the pet’s death.
10 and up: A child generally understands that all living things eventually die. Understanding and accepting are two different things, however. They may go through the normal stages of grief that grownups do: denial, bargaining, anger, guilt, depression, and acceptance. Or they may react by withdrawing, or feeling abandoned.