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Mahon, E. (1977). The Painted Guinea Pig. Psychoanal. St. Child, 32:283-303.

(1977). Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 32:283-303

The Painted Guinea Pig

Eugene Mahon, M.D.


The mourning reaction of a group of 3-year-old nursery school children was described. A teacher met with the children in small groups, helping them to "mourn" the lost pet and accept a substitute. The children could accept the new pet only after they had mourned the old one. Their reaction seemed in some ways similar to Freud's classical definition and description of mourning. The reaction of children to loss usually is not comparable to adult mourning: in fact, absence of mourning and hypercathexis of the mental representation of the lost object are the rule. However, when the child loses an object like a pet, which is not a primary or very important object with central significance for the child, a process similar to adult mourning can be observed. The availability of a substitute pet and the opportunity to discuss their feelings with a teacher in a group facilitated the appearance of the mourning reaction. An attempt was made to conceptualize the quality of object relationship that children have with pets. The pet was considered to be a child's significant not-me living possession, comparable to its inanimate counterpart, the transitional object. A primary world of relations between child and parents and peers was compared to a secondary world of relations between the child, his pets, toys, and transitional objects. The child's struggle in his secondary world will influence his adaptation in his primary world. The death of a guinea pig and the capacity to mourn in the secondary world will influence the outcome and quality of other mourning in the primary world.

Further studies of these "prototypes" of mourning that may occur

when children lose their pets and other objects could help to delineate a developmental line of mourning, and lead to a deeper understanding of the epigenesis of this most human of mental mechanisms.

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