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How To Keep Your Heart Open When It Breaks

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 eye dropper 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 heart beat. 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 heart broken, 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,

Lissa Rankin


Read more: Life, Nature, Spirit

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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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