Age Related Developmental Stages Concerning Pet Loss
2-3 year olds
A child's perception and reactions to death at this first age-related developmental stage lacks understanding based on no life experience. The parents must be truthful and inform their child that the pet has died and will not return. Due to the lack of understanding of death, the child will replicate their parents’ emotions and behaviors in the bereavement process. It's the parents’ responsibility to control their emotional grief while maintaining regular routines as much as possible to ensure stability in the home. Furthermore, explain to the child that tears are part of the normal healing process and a natural response when loosing a loved one. It's important that extra care is taken to reassure the child that none of their words or actions caused the pet to die. At this young age, the child will accept the loss without much emotional reaction to the experience.
4-6 year olds
At this stage, the child has a certain amount of understanding of death, but lacks comprehension to its perpetuity. They may believe the pet is living a full life elsewhere. The child may be concerned that they carry responsibility in the pet's death due to previous anger displayed towards the pet or otherwise perceived bad behavior. Their grief can manifest in physical aspects such as trouble sleeping, bladder and bowel disturbances, change in playing patters and different eating habits. The parents must engage the child in frequent brief sessions of communication where open self-expression is encouraged and permitted. It's important to give this child extra reassurance. To create loving memories; encourage the child to draw pictures of the pet and to write about the happy times they shared together. The child should be included in any funeral arrangement. By doing so, it may create a more realistic perception of death and how to deal with the inevitable later in their own lives.
7-9 year olds
By now, the child has reached an awareness of death knowing it's irreversible. Though they might not believe it will happen to them, it creates an imminent fear of loosing the parents. This child is curious. They are not afraid to ask questions that may be considered morbid, so when responding, it should be done honestly and with frank intent. They are very perceptive about the parents’ and other adults’ response to the death of the pet. The child's personal grief can manifest in bed-wetting, withdrawal, problems at school, anti-social and aggressive behavior, somatic or physical concerns and a clinging behavior. Drawing a picture of the pet can bring forth emotions they are unable to express verbally. The same amount of care and reassurance that is given to younger children should equally be reiterated at this stage to remove any doubts or fears of being responsible for the pet's death.
10-12 year olds
It is most commonly understood by the child at this stage that death is a natural and inevitable event. They grasp the concept of life's full cycle that occurs to all living and breathing things. They often react to the pet's death in similar manners displayed by their parents. Since they are still children, a more caring and gentle approach should be applied in their guidance towards healing. The death of the pet can trigger previous memories of other loss and conversations pertaining to such should be encouraged and openly communicated. Special attention and loving care should be given to this child as shedding tears will take place in abundance. Utilizing personal drawings, as with younger children, may be another resourceful outlet for better emotional expression.
At this age, their reactions to the pet's death will be similar to those of adults. Emotions ranging from apparent total lack of concern to being exceptionally sensitive are to be expected. Their desire to be treated like grown-ups conflicts with their needs to still be reassured they are children, thus creating an emotional rollercoaster. At this stage, the child is trying to find their own identity and the approval of their peers is of great importance. Supportive friends provide a desirable sense of comfort while dealing with the loss. As the child searches for ways of expressing their feelings and grief, it may conflict with the parents’ outlook. Considering the volatile nature of teenagers, any conflict or antagonistic remarks are best left unsaid. Family issues should be avoided during this time as they may trigger anger or behavioral problems. It's important to include the child in the family's way of dealing with euthanasia and aftercare of the dead pet.
This age group experiences the death of a pet especially traumatic and difficult. They might be coming into their own and leaving for college, getting a job in a different geographical location or getting married to start their own family. It creates a feeling of abandonment of a pet they very well may have had a close relationship with since a young age. Aside from other external pressures one might experience after moving out of the family home, this can create additional stress. The news of the pet's demise might reach them at a time where they are unable participate in the family rituals associated with the loss and will not be able to return back home to say good bye. Unmerited guilt is prominent in their bereavement process.