It was a baby rat.
Recently, after years of contemplating the possibility, I obtained two adult rats as pets. They were potentially to be used as live examples in the psychology classes I taught, and in a fun way—treats all around! A day after I received the rats, the previous owner informed me that one of the 5-month-old females “might” be pregnant. Two weeks later, that possibility became a reality. Ten baby rats emerged, and all were seemingly healthy and active. They were cute, to say the least.
As they grew, it became obvious that one in the litter was the runt. Although the term “runt” may sound somewhat derogatory, this animal was adorable. I felt sorry for him because he seemed to be blind in one eye; it took a long time for him fully open it. He was extremely small, and sometimes he would make odd noises. However, on other occasions, he seemed happy and energetic despite his scrawniness. I loved to hold him in my hand, and he allowed me to gently stroke his unkempt fur. Unlike the other rats, he seemed content to sit with me and enjoy a treat. Whether his inertia was due to a physical limitation or just his laidback personality, I don’t know. But I grew to love him. I was attached to the little guy.
When the time came for the rats to be weaned, I handed back 8 of the little ones to a friend who would find them homes. I kept the original two adults, one baby with a deformed tail and of course, my buddy. I named him Izzy; “is he OK” was something I wondered all the time.
For two months, he seemed to be doing well, and I had convinced myself that my feelings for him would have medicinal effects. He would sense how much I loved him, and that knowledge would make him thrive.
But one morning I noticed that he was still, and he didn’t respond when I whispered “Izzy” like he usually did when he heard my voice. I knew he was gone, but when I touched him and felt cold and stiff instead of warm and fuzzy, my heart sank. I buried him as tenderly as anyone could do that kind of thing. And I cried—for a rat I had only known for 2 months.
Why is it that this kind of a loss—for a pet or a misplaced but well-loved item—can rip you apart more that you could have anticipated? Because in our hearts, all losses are connected. I know that when I cry for Izzy, I am also mourning for my other lost loves.
When my little brother died when I was a child, I shoved my feelings aside in order to function. When my other brother died five years ago, I was numb in some respects. I forced myself to wear a brave face for my parents and children; it was important for me to take charge of all the practical things that had to be managed. Like I often do, my own feelings were on hold.
When Izzy died, I revisited those days, and my long-repressed pain bubbled up. My tears were for my baby rat, yes, but they were also for my baby brothers. Expressing sorrow for today’s loss reflects the grief of hurts past. Sometimes we need reminders and triggers to help us process our pain and travel on to some state of acceptance.