To this day, I can still vividly remember the day our pet turtle got away and ended up under the refrigerator. I was about 9 years old and my three sisters and I, along with my mother, had no idea what to do. We waited for Dad to get home knowing that he would save the day.
Usually when Dad got home we all rushed to the door to give him a big hug and a heart felt greeting. On that day however, the poor guy had 4 kids all yelling at him that our beloved turtle had ended up under the fridge and we could not coax him to come back out.
With his shirt and tie still firmly on, Dad grabbed the fridge and started to shuffle it back and forth, moving it forward a few inches at a time. "Do not crush him Dad" … we all chirped as he strained to move that old steel built relic of the 1960s. Bit by bit, the fridge came far enough out for us to look behind it. There was our turtle, covered in dust and not moving one iota. He had spent the better part of 5 hours under there and was gone for good.
It did not appear that moving the fridge had hurt him in any way because he was all the way at the back, almost against the wall. My sisters and I were devastated. At the time, he was the only pet in the house and it just had a big impact on us. We all felt the sadness but we also felt a little guilty for having taken him out of his glass home and letting him walk around on the floor.
My father could clearly see that we were all saddened by the event so he decided to do something special. He brought the whole family upstairs to the bathroom and basically performed a kind of funeral for the turtle. He told us that the turtle was going back to the river where it was appropriate for his final resting place to be. He was careful not to make too big a deal out of it and explained that the turtle was not like a cat or a dog in that it did not have the kind of interactions that a mammal can have with humans.
When a family with children loses a cat or a dog it's important to have a period in which to grieve. It is more than OK to cry and console each other. That pet was a companion and a friend and it is absolutely appropriate to show emotion. Make sure the kids are able to speak with you about how they are feeling. It's important for them to get it all out and not keep things bottled up inside.
Some people have suggested over the years that the very first thing to do after your cat or dog passes away is to head straight to the pet shop to get another pet. It's clear that another pet can fill the void and bring new and wonderful interactions with the family. However, if done too quickly, it will give the kids the impression that the previous pet was not so important and / or very very replaceable.
A good way to proceed is to spend a few weeks grieving and put a picture of the Deceased pet in the living room. After a certain period of time, which should be determined by the kids, they will usually suggest that a new pet would be nice. Once the children understand that the new pet will not be a replacement and that all the great memories will never go away, you can decide which pet to look for.
No dog or cat (or turtle!) Will ever replace your previous pet, but new memories are just around the corner and the new family member will fill the void. This is a great way for the family to spend real quality time together. You can visit the local SPCA, go to pet stores and really make the decision and choice a family affair.