I have to do what? And how to survive it.
The list of things you have to do when you child passes away is very daunting. I am still amazed at all the work it took just to get through those first few weeks. Things you never imagine yourself having to do, let alone managing to handle them when you are in shock.
The night that we lost Vail, we had to communicate with the fire department, the police, Lakewood family support services, the police detective, and the big one..the medical examiners office. Of course the first responders did what they could, which wasn't much, as Vail was gone already when they got here. Despite the efforts Steve and I both made, and the attempts the paramedics made, she was gone. The only peace we have in that, is our belief that it happened quickly and without pain. I have to believe that she just curled up and went to sleep, dreaming of giraffes and playing with her sister. The police were ok, we had to answer the detectives questions, but that was to be expected. Not horrible, at least not in comparison to some of the stories I have heard from my SUDC support group. Horrible reflections on child protective services removing their surviving children from their homes, being forced to take drug tests, interrogated for hours, unable to hold their child one last time. Fortunately for us, we didn't have any of those things happen. I'm not sure I could have survived them if they did. The worse thing they put us through that night was reenacting the moments before, during and after we found Vail. The trauma of that night, will live with us forever. I can close my eyes and see it all, in an instant. A crushing instant that sends me into a whirlwind of pain, tears, and panic all over again. In fact, it's the PTSD that haunts me most every day. In my former life as a paramedic, I had the unfortunate, yet common, experience of working on several SIDS babies. To this day, more than a decade later, I can still close my eyes and see those faces. And they weren't my special baby. So I know that those memories, those moments, each terrifying, tragic, pain-filled traumatic moment will live in my mind, under the surface, ready to paralyze me. These aren't memories I plan to share in this blog, they belong to me and to my husband, and to no one else. What I will say is that you never think that you will have to beg to hold your lifeless child for just one more minute, but we did. You never think that you will have to ask the medical examiner if you can be the one to wrap your child in her baby blanket and put them in a body bag, but Steve had to do just that. Because he couldn't bear to let anyone else do it. Watching them drive away with your baby, who was happy and healthy and wonderful just two hours before, is on the list of things we never imagined would happen. But when your child dies...you have to do it.
The next morning, we had to do another thing I never thought we would ever have to do. We had to tell Aspen that her precious little sister had gone to be with Jesus and that she would never see her again. When she asked why, we simply told her that we didn't know why, but that she was gone. We didn't want her to be afraid of going to sleep, or to think that Vail was sick, when in fact she was not. The simple truth was all we could say.
Shortly after that, we called the pediatricians office and let them know what had happened. We asked to bring Aspen in immediately for a checkup. They were very kind and obliged us. Aspen checked out fine, just as she and Vail always had at any of their appointments. While we were in the doctors office, the medical examiner called. And so we were met with yet another first. Listening to the results of our child's autopsy. Hearing the words...'cause of death undetermined.' Words you don't know what to do with when you hear them. They are so foreign they might as well be cantonese. And yet, when our child died, we had to hear them.
In the days that followed her death, there was a list of 'must do' things that felt like non-reality. Lots of choices. Deciding how to lay her to rest, a casket or an urn. Then we had to pick an urn. How do we make such a choice? How is that a thing to do? Aspen picked. She liked the white ones with the little green jewels that represented Vail's birthstone. The paperwork, all in perfect black and white- completely bold in your face-undeniable. Her name, her age, her birthdate, her eye color. Do you want to keep her hair locks? What kind of service, where should it be, what songs do you want to sing, do you want a guest book, where to put the flowers? The pastor wants to know your feelings on the service, how you want it to feel. But you don't want to feel anything more...you feel too much already. You shouldn't have to do any of these things. Yet, its as if the things themselves were forcing us into a decision. Holding you down so you can't breathe. It must be done, and so you do them. You do them on zero sleep, on an empty stomach, with your skin around your eyes so raw from tears that there are permanent red marks. All the while, you can still smell your child's hair and your body aches so badly from not holding her that you can barely move.
And then, as people arrive to help and support you, the torture continues. The looks, the hugs, the tears. I couldn't bring myself to tell people, and luckily others did it for me. Mostly my dear husband, always there to carry the bulk of the burden.
One of my most favorite tasks that came with losing my child was calling the life insurance company. Getting up the courage to make the call took days. And then when I did, they told me that they didn't have an active policy for my baby Vail. Despite the email documentation, the requests I made, no policy had been opened. Someone had failed to do their job. As if we didn't have enough to handle. Just pile it on.
I'll never forget going to the mall to pick out something to wear to her funeral. What do you wear to your child's funeral. As if there is an appropriate choice. All I could think was...it's just clothes...I don't care.
As time passed, the chores of death decreased. They didn't come in waves anymore, just on the evening tide or in the wind here and there. It was months later that we had to go and pick up Vail's death certificate from the funeral home. Again, there it was, in black and white- undeniable print, the stark reality, that our child is in fact really gone. In some moments, it still doesn't feel real. She was so full of life, and that in a moment all of that was gone---it's just not that easy to accept as reality. There are nights when I still hear her calling for me or times when I hear her little footsteps in the hallway.
When Vail's final autopsy results came in the week before Christmas, the police department closed their investigation and the D.A.'s office declined to press any charges against us. Add that to the list of things you never think you will hear in your lifetime. It was then that her baby blanket was to be released to us. It took 6 calls and two trips to the police department to get that arranged. When we finally made it to the property office, the task itself was simple...present ID, sign on the line. Take the brown paper bag holding her white blanket with pink hearts and the teal letters- VAIL. The one thing she had with her name on it.
Her blanket now sits next to the urn Aspen chose for her sister. It sits with some candles and the only other thing that Vail didn't have to share with her sister-Raffy. The pink giraffe she picked out on one of her many fun trips to the zoo. She loved the giraffes. Add that to the list of things I never thought I would do...cry every time I see a giraffe.
The title of this post indicates that I have advice on how to survive all of these "things no one should have to do, ever." But I don't. I have know idea how we have survived the last 111 days. I hope that someday I will be able to help others understand how to get through it, when I figure that out, I'll let you all know.