“Mama! Mama! Come quick! You’ve gotta see this.” The sun is barely rising, but Siena nudges me awake and drags me out of bed, holding my hand and guiding me down the stairs.

Out the front door we go, where I see the gardener, up early and cutting overgrown grass with a machete. Siena passes him and leads me to the corner of the yard, where she has made a nest of leaves and flowers, and on top of the flowers lie the tiniest animals I’ve ever seen. They’re just over an inch long, hairless, and with fused eyes, clearly they’re brand newborn, whatever they are.

Siena says, “Look Mama! They’re baby raccoons! The gardener told me so.” They looked more like baby field mice to me, but who am I to argue with an impassioned 6-year-old? I compromised by calling them “rat-coons.”

They are rolling around and making a whole bunch of noise for animals so teensy. They’re squirming and opening and closing their mouths and Siena is picking them up and holding them. They are no longer than her pinky finger.

Then she asks what I saw coming. “Mama, he says their mama abandoned them, and they will die if we leave them here. Can we take them inside?”

The Squirrel Girl

My heart rose and then sank. Between the ages of 7 and 22, I raised 22 injured or abandoned baby squirrels. The ones with the fused eyes and no hair were usually too young to survive, and I had grieved the loss of many of them. Those that did survive, I eventually had to let go. The whole experience of raising all those squirrels was an exercise in extremes – the greatest joy of caring for them, the deepest loss of letting them go or losing them.

In a flash, I saw how this was going to go. I would agree to help care for the rat-coons, Siena would grow attached, and in all likelihood, they would quickly die, in spite of our best efforts. She would be heartbroken, and my Mama Bearness wanted to protect her heart.

My hubby Matt looked skeptical when I tracked him down and whispered to him so Siena couldn’t hear that I was entertaining the idea of keeping them. He didn’t think it was such a good idea. But he said he’d leave it up to me.

Permission To Break Your Heart

So I sat Siena down and explained that if we brought the rat-coons home and cared for them, the chances were high that they wouldn’t survive and because I remember what it felt like to be 7 and lose the creatures I loved, I warned her how much it would hurt, how bare and raw and exposed her heart would feel.

I also admitted that the joy she would feel while she cared for them might be the best experience of her young life.  And while I wanted to protect her from the heartbreak, I didn’t want to shelter her from the joy.

I reminded her how much it hurt when she fell in love with her friend Vivian last summer, and then Vivian had to go back to Chicago. In this post, I taught her how when you love, you must give someone permission to break your heart.

With the rat-coons, I told her it was her choice, that if she decided to raise the baby rat-coons, she would have to give them permission to break her heart just like she did with Vivian. I also made her promise that, if we lost them, she would not give in to the temptation to close her heart. She would have to keep it open, even when it was wounded and hurting.

Siena gave me her word.

The Care & Feeding Of Baby Rat-coons

Siena and I found a shoebox, and because we had nothing soft to fill it with, Siena destroyed her favorite green pillow stuffy and took the stuffing out it to line the bottom of the box. We then went outside, scooped up the miniature rat-coons, and set them in the box. Putting the box under a heat lamp so they would stay warm, we got ready for their first feeding. Dog’s milk from a can – Esbilac – was sucked into a little eyedropper too big for their tiny mouths. So I found a syringe from my medical supplies, removed the needle, and filled the syringe with the warmed milk.

Siena held the first rat-coon in her hand and held the syringe to [his? her?] mouth. The little baby grasped for the syringe and started slurping away. After the rat-coon stopped eating, we used a warm cloth to wipe the little genitals, to mimic the licking the mother would do to induce the whole pee/poo process.  (I knew all this from my Squirrel Girl days. Turns out it’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget these things.)

After feeding and wiping the second rat-coon, we put them back in the box and Siena watched them squirm and squeak, riveted to the shoebox. She spent the whole morning watching them while they slept.

A few hours later, they woke up, started squeaking, and we repeated the whole process again.

Siena was giddy with happiness. I’ve never seen her so in love in her entire life. She said, “Mama, I give them permission to break my heart.” She was clearly all in, no armor to protect her small heart, no walls to keep love out, just joy in the ability to hold and love and nurture these small living creatures.

The Sleep

I was on a work deadline, so I had to abandon the hopeful watch of the rat-coons with Siena, and since the rat-coons had been fed and settled, I thought I could get some work done. Our live-in nanny April stayed with Siena, and the two of them kept watch.

A while later, I came down to check on them, and April said, “They’re very good sleepers. VERY good sleepers.” She raised an eyebrow. My heart sank.

Peering beneath the stuffing, I saw two little rat-coons, still on the bottom of the box. When I held my finger to their still warm bodies, I felt no heartbeat. The cooing squeaks had stopped. I felt my eyes fill and start to sting.

The News

How does one tell a 6-year-old in love such news?

Siena said, ‘They’re very good sleepers, Mama. I fed them so good. Now they’re resting.”

And I had to confess the truth. When I did, she curled herself into a ball on my lap, nuzzled her face into my chest, and wept like only a 6-year-old with a broken heart can. I stroked her hair, remembering how I felt when I lost that first nest of baby squirrels right around her age when I first knew I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. Siena and I just held each other.

Siena picked up their stiff little bodies and held them to her heart. She kissed them on their teeny lips and said, “You were so loved, little raccoons. I’m sorry you didn’t get to live very long, but one little girl loved you.”

Then she looked at me and said, between gulping tears, “Don’t worry, Mama. My heart is still open.”

The Burial

Siena spent the rest of the day carrying their little corpses with her “because they can’t be alone, Mama. They love me too much.” As much as I was tempted to tell her she couldn’t play with these little dead field mice raccoons, I wanted to give her time to heal, so I resisted the temptation to get all finicky about germs or decorum or what others would think. When she pulled out their little dead bodies to show to my pregnant friend Jory DesJardins, with whom we had lunch, Jory said, “Wow, she’s gonna become a veterinarian. Or a doctor. She’s fearless.”

She replied, “I’m gonna become both. So I can save animals AND people.”

That night, we had a funeral for the rat-coons, complete with ceremonial drums, songs we sang, and incense. Siena cried as she threw the dirt on their tiny bodies in the backyard pet cemetery. “It feels so final, Mama.”

And it did. But underneath the tears, I felt joy and pride, not just for how beautifully Siena was handling it, but for myself, for being willing to let my daughter get her heartbroken, instead of trying to shelter her at the expense of her joy.

Show and Tell

The next day, Siena was the talk of her Waldorf school. Throughout the course of the day, the children, full of envy, asked her to repeat her story, and over and over, she recounted what it was like to hold those baby rat-coons in her healing hands and feed them milk. Swollen with pride, she recounted to story to strangers at the grocery store, the little girls in her ballet class, anyone who would listen.

“It was the best day of my life,” she said to the grocery store clerk.

When I asked her a few days later how she was feeling about it, she said, “I’m feeling brave, Mama, because as much as it hurts to get my heart broken, it feels even better to be in love. Can we go find some more baby raccoons?”

Maybe it’s time for a hamster.

Do You Give Others Permission To Break Your Heart?

Are you willing to risk heartbreak and keep your heart open when it happens? Or have you shut down so nobody can ever hurt you again? Are you closing yourself to joy in the process?

Tell us your stories.

With love and overflowing rat-coon joy,

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23 Comments

  1. Jason Stein

    Lissa you have reminded me not only the strength and courage of our
    children, but the ability to surrender as a parent and watch as they
    love and experience loss. Thank you!

    Reply
  2. Kia Robertson

    Oh she is so beautiful…Lissa what an amazing daughter you have! We rescued three little baby mice (all pink and hairless) last summer, they were so small that I had to feed them with a very fine tipped paint brush. They stayed alive for 2 days, Hannah and I were up with them every 3 hours at night to feed and wipe them. Then on the 3rd day I went to check on them and they were all cuddle up in a row (like spoons) and had died. Hannah and I were heartbroken but we both said we’d do it again in a heartbeat! Thank you for sharing your experience!

    Reply
  3. Tracy

    This is so timely Lissa. On 11-11-11 I met an amazing man at a spiritual retreat and during the final meditation three days later, I had a vision of the two of us getting married. He lives in another country, and we have spent the past year skyping every two weeks, and getting to know each other. He has also been dealing with his “issues” and releasing his past – as he puts it – in order to be able to open his heart to love. He is so afraid that he is blocking love from his life, but he doesn’t totally recognize that his “reasons” are keeping people at a distance. Despite an amazing 10 day vacation together in which we both said, “I love you,” he is still unable to really open to a relationship with me. This has been difficult, but nonetheless, I have fully opened my heart this year, seen the possibility for the two of us, and allowed myself to be vulnerable. I will never regret this. I know that I am worthy of a man who can fully give me his heart and recognize everyday how lucky he is to be with me, and if this man isn’t the one who can do that, my heart is now open for the next one.

    Reply
  4. marymuse

    This is an amazing story, and your daughter is a brave little girl. I’m currently dealing with heartbreak in a situation and struggling not to put up walls three feet thick around my heart to keep it “safe” again. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

    Reply
  5. Joy Christin Detor Holland

    So beautiful, thank you! As I read, I realize I teach my children this and as I teach them I learn as well. I learned through mothering them how to honor individual path and unfolding within relationships. I began to apply that to my personal relationships, and I see now when I fell in love with a traveler last year, I wrote an article “I’m not afraid to love you”…then I lived that article, beautiful in all ways; but what I was really saying was “I’m not afraid to lose you”…because I knew the depth of this experience would change my life. And it has. Thank you for sharing this insight, within your words I found that little elusive nugget of peace around this very important principle.

    Reply
  6. lynn

    OMG Lissa. I have tears running down my face. This is my story too. I too rescued many a bird, mouse and rat. Few made it, but some did. In those days, though sad, I was more matter of fact about their deaths. They always had burials, as did my pets. Now it seems I am even more emotional than I was then, about suffering and abandonment. What a wonderful lesson you gave Siena. Permission to care, to try, to have her heart broken and encouragement to stay open. Beautiful. Though my mother was sympathetic by allowing me to try, she didn’t have your words. I never thought about getting my heart broken. It was just natural. The words you gave your daughter will see her through many a heartbreak no doubt and allow her to fully participate in life. Thank you for sharing your story. Wishing you, Siena and daddy Matt a joyous Christmas. Lynn L.

    Reply
  7. Tatyanna M. Wilkinson

    Wow. what a great story. Thank you. This touched me in a place I needed it today. ‎”Don’t worry. My heart is still open” I need this t-shirt. man…I needed to hear this. In this moment. Blessings.

    Reply
  8. Joanna Warwick

    Omg – thank you .. I read your pink post and it left me sobbing! I have fallen in love with animals and for a long time that was safe until my beloved horse and best friend had to be put down and my heart shattered..when I was a little girl I was madly in love with my best friend but we were seperated, breaking my heart, I allowed myself to fall in love again with a new best friend when I was 11 and we were seperated too – friends left, animals died and I fell in love with a man in my twenties and he betrayed me .. So I stopped loving for a long time. This post was so poignant as I have become recently aware I broke my own heart when love crept in 3 years ago for fear of being hurt by love again. I have a deep sadness and longing which is healing – I miss being in love with life, people, friends, animals and falling in love with a best friend and lover .. May my heart be as pure and open once more, like your gorgeous daughter – thank you for sharing xx

    Reply
  9. John Carosella

    So beautiful and inspiring. I applaud your extraordinary, tender, and wise mothering. You set a wonderful and wonder-filled example. Peace be to you and your loved ones.

    Reply
  10. Jesje

    thank you so much Lissa, not only for letting Siena find her way, but also for us grown-ups to have a chance to sob! crying from deep inside my heart always brings up friends, older wounds that want some loving tears too <3.

    Reply
  11. kd12

    possibly one of the best blog posts i have ever read. period. thank you for linking to your earlier post about siena and princess vivien. i now have some new mommy mojo to offer my own princess hope…

    Reply
  12. Sue

    Yeah, I dunno about the hamster Lisa. I’m pretty sure my son (a 37 year-old M.D.) decided to be a doctor when he was a little boy grieving the death of his hamster.

    Reply
  13. vernette

    Great post Lissa. You’re raising your daughter to be fearless in love. I love it.

    Reply
  14. Jo Bunten

    Lissa,

    What a absolutely beautiful story & thank you for sharing…I’m crying like a 61 year old woman {:>) I love the lesson as it relates to me & my dearest friends. It feels even better to be in love! That is amazing!

    Reply
  15. Annie

    aw, so sweet, Lissa. Tears are rolling, and I just want to say you are such a sweet, wonderful mother! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  16. Jane Lee Logan

    Big loss came early to me and has visited much too often: my small, child’s hand held my mother’s as I watched her take her last breath, my father followed when I was thirty-one, and my eldest sister and best friend met them both only a few short years ago. These and many other losses have taught me valuable lessons, the most important has been how to become increasingly aware of the changeless within all change and that just because there APPEARS to be loss, the truth, the essence of our relationships never leaves us.

    I’ve found it takes tremendous courage and determination to hold to the hub of the wheel of life even while the spokes seem to turn every which way. But at this hub is pure Love and it is worth every tear and every effort. Sometimes we need to do some serious excavating, but there is always a gift, a treasure, in all of our experiences. I’ve become quite the archaeologist; I dig and dig with determination until I find it, seldom questioning whether the gem is there to be found anymore.

    Thank you for sharing your experience so beautifully. YOU are a treasure.

    Reply
  17. Aradia Goseling

    You know I utterly love reading your blog and the beautiful stories you share with us from yours to ours! I definitely can feel that urge to protect your young one, but the desire for them to feel that love fully. I hope I can keep that in mind as my own little grows up!

    I know in the past I have that desire to cloister my heart, to shy away from those painful experiences that wound it so. Lucky for me I’m too stubborn a fighter to hold up that wall for long. I ache for love so much that I can’t help but open my heart again. Funny how that works out. But truly there is nothing like that first thrilling warm feeling of new love, its so radiant and wonderful!

    Reply
  18. Paul Chubbuck

    This is one of the most touching and beautiful stories I have read in a while. Thank you.
    Paul

    Reply
  19. Diane

    Hi Lissa- This is not only one of the most beautiful post I have ever read, it is also an excellent example of wholehearted and compassionate parenting. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us….You are amazing.

    Reply
  20. Lizzy B Love

    Thank you for being you. thank you for birthing a miraculous little soul and helping her keep her heart open. It’s my purpose in this life to work with children and help them do the same, so thank you for this timely confirmation of my passion. AND I literally just broke up with someone yesterday evening… Hardest thing ever. The day before, I had the awareness of how beautiful it was to feel the love for him while also holding the agony of the loss. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that much loss. Ever. And I knew that they were one and the same, you cannot have one without the possibility of the other. And I realized that I was so grateful that I could feel so much and have the luxury of loving, b/c, as Siena so eloquently stated, ” When you fall in love, you should leave a little crack in your heart, even when you feel like you should lock it. And that way, the right person can always sneak in.”

    The guy was having a hard time opening up to me yesterday, b/c of this very notion that if he opened up to actually caring about someone or something SO much, he could be hurt. And I just held his face in my hands and looked into his eyes with so much love, and said, “yes, it’s scary and nothing is certain. But the power of that love is so immeasurable, it requires great courage in the face of great loss. It’s the next step. And I am here for you if/when you choose to take it.” He ended up getting scared and shutting down, hence the “breakup,” but my heart was and is so wide open, I cannot feel anything but gratitude and strength, for the power of my love.

    And then I read this. Tears are streaming down my face and I am blown away by the synchronicity of my reading this in so many ways. Many blessings love to you and your family <3 this day could've been a pretty rough one, and although I committed a few months ago to keeping my heart open no matter what, I can always use all the support and reassurance that it's possible.

    Reply
  21. Melody Joy Deetz

    Lissa, god bless you! I love that you were brave enough to teach Siena such a valuable life lesson. Love your light! Melody

    Reply
  22. paul jarvis

    my wife and i rescued 2 baby rats (perhaps rat-coons?) and we’ve had them for 6 months now. they snuggle up on my lap every day while i work and sleep. they’re family now.

    Reply
  23. Julia Flynn

    My heart is open…..My heart is open…..My heart is open….

    Reply

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