How To Keep Your Heart Open When It Breaks

“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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