How To Keep Your Heart Open When You Lose A Pet

I was only seven when my parents hired a chimneysweep 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 chimneysweep 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 eye dropper 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 eye dropper 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 leapt 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,


Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.comPink Medicine Revolutionarymotivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.

Learn more about Lissa Rankin here.

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Dale Overall

A fascinating article about a young person wanting to help baby squirrels that had been relocated by the chimney sweep. It is probable that the mother may still have accepted them by replacing the nest but it is difficult to say and her intentions were good so unlike Monica r who did not approve because squirrels are wild animals and should not be made pets, well she did try to create a home for them until they could be released. Sadly several died. The vet that she took them to did not tell the family about the ways to care for wild animals regarding socialization and handling, just general care.

Yes, the loss of a pet is difficult. Having had many cats over my life time and two dogs there is such sadness when the pet dies. We can only treasure the time that they shared with us and recall their memories with fondness after they have crossed to the Rainbow Bridge. Remembering Fred, a 20 year-old Siamese who filled our lives with delight is always a fabulous occasion.

New G.
New G.3 years ago

Thank you.

Valerie A.
Valerie A.3 years ago


LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you for sharing.

Alison A.
Alison A.3 years ago

That story brought tears to my eyes.

I have lost many pets over my lifetime, that is the sad thing, they don't last as long as we do, or maybe that is a good thing as they need us and they don't need to be dumped on someone else who doesn't really want them when we are gone.

I will only ever adopt, never buy, I think this also helps with the loss, because if you save a life, you know that they wouldn't have had such a great life without you, so even if it was short, you know that they finally found out what human kindness really was.

I rescued a senior, disabled rabbit last year, I knew when I took him on that my time with him may be limited, but he needed me, so it wasn't about what I wanted, I chose not to be selfish and put his needs before my feelings, which is very similar to the story above.

Love hurts, but you are not really living if you don't fill your heart with love.

Past Member
shirley s.3 years ago

In 1999 my husband brought home our 1st Chihuahua whom I named Bodie (Jacobo). The following year he brought home our 2nd Chihuahua whom we named Bina (Jacobina). In 2009 Bina became ill with a bad cough, and unbeknown to us it was a sign of heart trouble, needless to say she died on 30th Oct at 3am in my arms. In 2011 Bodie started to cough also, this time we took him to the vets and he was put on medication. Then in 2012 I found lump that was blocking his back passage. I took him back to the vets, but they said he'd need an operation, but with his heart trouble and age he probably wouldn't make it, and it would be best to put him to sleep...... Loosing Bina was bad enough, it broke my heart so much that I still cry over her and wish I was with her every day, but now loosing Bodie my world feels like it is worthless.

My husband did bring home another new doggie (C.K.C – again our 1st) in 2011 and we named her Princess Maria, but even though she has filled a gap, my heart still aches for Bodie and Bina. Most people around me don't understand how I feel, they see them as just dogs and not as important as humans, I disagree, they've meant more to me than any human I've ever come across in my life (except my husband of course). I know that in time my pain will ease somewhat, but I will always miss them and long to be with them again. My life will always be incomplete....

Carrie Anne Brown

great story thanks for sharing :)

Borg Drone
Borg Drone3 years ago


Janalke Meere
Janalke Meere3 years ago

Our beautiful miniature dachshund, Zoey, was with us for 7 years until late one night (6 months ago) we heard a load cry and she just died. We tried to revive her with no luck. I think of her every day and want to cry every time I do. (my eyes are even welling up as I'm typing this) don't think I'll EVER get over it!!