Children will respond differently to death, both individually and by age. Younger children will have different fears and concerns than an older child will. Few children will be unaffected. Here are some general notes about how different age groups may respond to a pet's death.
An infant is not too young to feel the loss of a family pet. Though of course, there is little understanding of death, what does happen is that the baby may feel the emotional changes in the family. Routines may be upset. That furry beast that used to lick up the spilled cereal is now gone.
Toddlers will rarely have an understanding of death. They will consider death as something akin to loss, and perhaps sleep. Be honest, and avoid too many euphemisms. Do not let the confusion between sleep and death continue unchecked, or you may find sleep problems developing. Tell your child that the pet has died and will not be coming back. Common stress signs at this age include difficulty sleeping, outbursts of sadness or anger, and a sense of guilt. Assure children that they did not cause the pet's death. Go ahead and get another pet if you like. Children at this age do not usually feel any conflict about accepting a new pet to love.
As they get older, children begin to have some basic understanding of death as a life phase. The child may tend to visualize the pet as continuing to exist in some way. Children may think of the animal as continuing a life underground--eating, sleeping, playing as normal. You can, if you chose, channel this image into a comforting thought that while the animal is not really living underground, its spirit lives in the child's heart.
Preschoolers may feel guilt for causing the death because they said or did something wrong. Assure them this is not so. At this age, children may see death as contagious, like a disease. They may fear that they are going to die soon, or that a friend or family member is in danger of death. They will be acutely aware of the word, "death." They need reassurance and comfort. Signs of grief in children of this age include steps backwards in potty training, problems sleeping, perhaps eating. Allow children to ask questions and give them honest and understandable answers.
Why Go through All This?
Losing a pet is not easy for any member of the family. As parents, we try to shield our children from pain and the pain of losing of a beloved pet is distressing. However, this is a part of life and the lessons learned are ones that can serve our children well through the difficult times in their lives. Pets are wonderful additions to our families. They offer companionship and love. They are friends who keep our confidences. We can tell them anything. When they leave us, we are sad, but we are richer for having had them in our lives.