How To Keep Your Heart Open When You Lose A Pet

I was only seven when my parents hired a chimney sweep to wipe out the cobwebs on our brick flue. They didn’t expect him to stumble into a nest of four baby squirrels so tiny they had veiny, bluish, hairless skin and fused eyes. The chimney sweep brought the nest of baby squirrels into our house, but my mother insisted we must put them back, that maybe their mother would return for them, and that if she didn’t, perhaps it was God’s will for them to die.

I was having none of that. I had heard that animals will often reject their young if they have been touched by human hands, and since these baby squirrels bore the scent of the chimneysweep, I was unwilling to take a chance. I was a second-grader on a mission.

A Girl On A Mission

I insisted my parents take me to the veterinarian, so I could learn how to rescue those little baby squirrels. The veterinarian taught me to create a makeshift incubator by filling an aquarium with polyester fiberfill and shining a light on the little babies. Then he taught me how to feed them canned dog’s milk with an eyedropper every two hours and how to wipe their little genitals with a warm washcloth to mimic how their mother would lick them to make them go to the bathroom. He warned me that they probably wouldn’t survive, even if I did everything perfectly, but he praised me for caring about them and suggested that maybe I should get good grades in school so I could become a doctor or a veterinarian one day. I decided, in that moment, that I would.

Every night I set an alarm to wake myself up so I could feed those babies. And I got special permission to bring my squirrels in a duffel bag to school so I could feed them there. Every time I checked on them, my heart raced because I was afraid they might have died. And every time I saw their little pink bodies squirming, my heart rushed with love for them and I praised God for letting them live another day with me.

The Loss

Then one night, the alarm blared and I peered into the lit aquarium to see that one of the babies was still. The other babies were climbing over her, grabbing for the eyedropper of milk. I wept, alone in my princess bedroom, holding that little dead squirrel to the broken heart that beat under my flannel pajamas.

Over the next two days, the other three squirrels all died. Each time, I felt like my guts were getting ripped out. I could feel the pain in my stomach, clenching, gripping, ripping. I could feel the knot in my throat, clogging my breath and making it hard to swallow.

I could feel my heart cracked wide open like my seven-year-old heart had never been cracked. I sat on my mother’s lap as she stroked my forehead and I said, “I’m never loving anything ever again.”

My mother rocked me and whispered, “Don’t ever close your heart, darling. That’s how the light gets in.”

I kept that aquarium in my room for weeks with the light still on, gazing into it longingly, wishing they were still there.  I replaced them with imaginary squirrels who followed me everywhere and cracked open acorns.

Starting Over

It wasn’t long before someone who had met my babies was driving down the road in her car when a baby squirrel fell out of a tree and landed on her windshield. The squirrel, who I named Romulus, had a broken leg and a bloody mouth when she drove him to my house and laid him in my healing hands. I fell in love and rushed to action. Once the leg was set and the mouth stopped bleeding, the baby squirrel, who was much older than the first four and already had fur and open eyes, became my best friend. I carried Romulus with me everywhere I went, and after school, we’d play in the park. I’d put him down on the ground and run away from him, and he’d chase me until I finally let him catch up. Then he’d run up my leg, all the way up to my shoulder, where he’d burrow under my hair.

The Squirrel Girl

A reporter snapped my photo. They put it in the paper and called me the “Squirrel Girl.”  The name stuck.

The problem arose when my squirrel hit puberty and wanted to start making baby squirrels with all the hot little girly squirrels out there.  Although he still slept with me and nestled under my hair, he started biting everybody else. It became evident I couldn’t keep him, so we had to find an animal preserve where we could release a hand-fed squirrel into the wild.

We found the place. Big oak trees sprawled. Hot little girly squirrels flitted about, sitting on their haunches, chomping acorns. There were frog-filled lily ponds and blossoming trees and fragrant jasmine bushes covering a gazebo. It was squirrely paradise. My heart leaped with the joy of having found such a perfect home for Romulus, then it sank just as quickly into the depths of despair I knew I was about to experience when I said goodbye to him.

The Release

I sat on the ground, holding him to my face, so I could tell him how much I loved him and how grateful I was to have spent this time with him. I wanted him to understand I would keep him forever, if only my parents would let me, if only he’d stop biting people, but I understood that he wanted to have squirrely babies all his own and I didn’t blame him for his bad behavior.

Snuggling him to my cheek, I told Romulus I would always love him, that I would never, ever forget him, and that I didn’t want him to feel like I was abandoning him. Really, I was doing it for his own good, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in my seven years.

Then I kissed him and put him on the bark of a tree, trying to smile while my eyes welled up.

“Shoo! Scat! Go find squirrely girlfriends!” I tried to sound cheerful.

Then Romulus tore down the tree trunk, traversed the soft grass, crawled onto my shoe and ran up the leg of my jeans to sit on my shoulder.  Crying, I tried again. The same thing happened half a dozen times. By this time I was a total wreck.

The last time, I started running away from Romulus the minute I put him down, tear-assing to the car as fast as I could. He chased after me until my mother finally caught up with him and picked him up. When he tried to bite her, she dropped him and he ran after me again.

We finally got help from the park ranger.

Oh, The Pain

I’ll never forget the visceral pain in my gut and my chest as we drove away from that nature preserve. I could barely breathe.  I told my mother I was never – EVER – going to raise another squirrel, that it was just too hard to love them and leave them.

Six months later, another squirrel appeared on my doorstep, and I started all over again.

This is sacred medicine – the willingness to open your heart again and again, even when you know how much it might hurt in the end.

Have You Lost A Furry Friend You Love?

Because pets aren’t human, it’s easy to feel that our grief isn’t respected when we love a pet. But having lost several animals in my life, I know that the pain can be just as great as when we lose a person we love.

Tell us about a pet you’ve lost. Let us witness your courage as you keep your heart open and learn to love again.

The Squirrel Girl,

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