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  • The Vail Project

Surviving children and their quiet grieving

When Aspen woke up this morning, I found her in her room singing "The Next Right Thing" from Frozen II.

Her sweet little voice very softly sang:

"Hello darkness, I'm ready to succumb

I follow you around, I always have

But you've gone to a place I cannot find

This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down

But a tiny voice whispers in my mind

You are lost, hope is gone

But you must go on

and do the next right thing

It is the song that Anna sings when she knows Elsa is gone. The words are so deep and chilling for those who have lost a child. Even more so when you are 4 and your little sister just died. We took Aspen to see the movie, knowing there was some tough content. We cried a lot in the theatre. Aspen didn't. She watched intently and really absorbed the song. We could tell that she was actually processing it and relating it to her own loss. Aspen has always been a very emotionally intelligent child. In spite of that, the second worst moment of my life came the morning after we lost baby Vail. We didn't sleep that night, only cried in painful disbelief. Holding Aspen while she slept. Knowing when she woke that we would have to tell her why her sister wasn't there anymore. Every morning Aspen always wanted to go into Vail's room to get her in the morning. So, there was no dodging the conversation, not even for a few moments. Those words, the ones we had to speak to our little girl, were the most painful words I have ever spoken. Saying it out loud for the first time and explaining to her in a way that she would understand, that her sister was gone and not coming back...was pure unadulterated torture. Some how we managed to survive it. And even more miraculous, Aspen seemed to understand. As only an innocent child can.

In the days and weeks that followed, her grief showed itself in many ways. Most of which were healthier than the ways we as adults grieve. She got mad, frustrated, and cried about things that were seemingly unrelated. But we knew what it was really all about. Aspen quickly, within a few days of Vail's passing, asked to have everyone leave the house. She didn't want anyone around. She couldn't handle all of their pain, their sadness, their faces. So good at reading faces. Aspen often asks me "Mommy, why is your face so sad?" I always try to tell her the truth. When I don't, and push it off by saying "my face isn't sad." She quickly retorts "Yes it is." Can't fool her, way too smart. As a parent, there is nothing we wouldn't do to help our children avoid pain. In this case, we could not protect her from the loss or the pain. And being pulled down so deeply by that grief "gravity" that Anna so beautifully describes in her song, I'm not sure we were capable of much protection. So we did what we could do. We got out of bed every day, despite the constant aching in our bodies and hearts begging us to stay there. We took care of her, as best we could in the moments that passed, hoping it as enough. And we tried to help her understand her own loss. All of this magnified our own grief. It still does.

The first few months, Aspen would talk about her sister and we would immediately burst into tears, so she didn't talk about her often. I knew she was thinking about her sister. How could she not be. Aspen was 2.5 years old when Vail was born, so its not like she remembered her life before Vail. She bonded with her baby sister right away. Loved to hold her, talk to her, watch her when we were out of the room. When Vail was a baby, she was sort of a nuisance to Aspen, in that she was a distraction for the rest of us and provided her with little entertainment. Don't get me wrong she loved that baby, but she didn't interact enough to be fun for Aspen. Over the last 3-4 months of Vail's life, age 12-16 months, Aspen really started to appreciate her sister. Vail was really coming in to her own. Her goofy little personality shining every day, in every smile. Aspen didn't always play with her, because Vail's play was more simple than hers, they played near each other. Aspen was never alone. Vail was like a little shadow. She wouldn't take things from Aspen or play with her so much as she would intently watch her sister play and then when Aspen put down her toys, Vail would sneak over and quietly pick up the discarded play thing. And then, the biggest smile would creep across her face, as if she was saying to herself "Yes, I got it, and sissy didn't notice." They rarely fought, Vail's energy always tempering Aspens headstrong nature. A few weeks before Vail passed, Aspen started asking to wake her sister from her nap, so they could play. I remember thinking how special that was. Aspen missed Vail when she was sleeping. That is the true testament of sisterhood.

Now that Vail is sleeping forever and Aspen cannot wake her, I know she feels her absence every day. Its been over three months since we lost our sweet baby, and now, Aspen talks about her sister every day, sometimes all day. Shortly after seeing Frozen II, Aspen broke down one day and just sobbed. When I asked her why she was crying she said to me "I'm not a sister anymore." That broke my heart into a million pieces. I just held her and told her that she will always be Vail's big sister and that Vail will always be in her heart, making her strong and brave. Know that you are loved little one, your heart is full with the love of your sister.

Some days, Aspen will be playing quietly and I'll hear her burst into raucous laughter. This happened the other day and when we went to check on her, she was laying on her back laughing hysterically. She said "baby Vail is tickling me." Sometimes I wonder if she still sees her sister. One of my friends who lost a young child told me that his siblings still see him sometimes. I don't know if she does. But I sure hope that when baby Vail is tickling her sister that she can see and feel her presence. And I hope that fills her heart with love and memories of her sweet little best friend. More so, I wish that baby Vail would come and sit with me a while. Maybe that would help me with my grief, the way it has helped Aspen with hers.

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