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How To Keep Your Heart Open When It Breaks

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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 empassioned 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 into 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.

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Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.  She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.  Lissa blogs at and also created two online communities - and She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.


+ add your own
5:42AM PST on Dec 26, 2012

great article, thanks for sharing :)

8:59PM PST on Dec 21, 2012

Good think I know how to touch type. What a beautiful way to live.

10:44AM PST on Dec 19, 2012

What a beautiful article ! What wise choices Lissa made, and those choices allowed her daughter an experiece she will never forget. An experience that will no doubt reflect many of her decisions throughout her life. What a very wise mother. The sadness of loss cannot overtake the joy of love and helping. Those wonderful moments will be forever etched in her memory. Thanks for sharing this touching article.

5:41PM PST on Dec 18, 2012

Very touching story about Love and selflessness. And, the part when the little girl says she wants to be not just a vetenarian or a doctor, but BOTH, because she values life so much, goes right to my mother-and-conservationist heart.
Happy Holidays to her family and friends!

7:27AM PST on Dec 18, 2012

Thank you very much for sharing

3:51AM PST on Dec 18, 2012

My compliments to the parent(s) for giving her the option to follow through the motions of her heart...but also be there to guide her through as well. I was touched by the story.

10:14PM PST on Dec 17, 2012

A very sweet story.

11:38AM PST on Dec 17, 2012

very good article

4:54AM PST on Dec 17, 2012

thank you

4:45AM PST on Dec 17, 2012


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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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