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  • The Vail Project

The Empty Silence of Child Loss

As a busy mom of two active girls, there was never silence in our house. No silence, no downtime and little reprieve during the day. When I was pregnant with Vail, Aspen was a growing two year old. So while I only had the one child, there were not many quiet moments. I was worried about being able to manage both girls, balance all of my responsibilities and still be a good wife and mom. A common worry among mothers expecting their second child. I realized after Vail was born that I never should have worried. Yes, it was more work and a big adjustment. But it just happened. You adjust and adapt because there is no alternative. Moments of peace and quiet slip further and further away though. If I was lucky to get both girls down for a nap at the same time it was a miracle. It is amazing how accustomed to the noise you become. How all the sounds of little ones invade your life so much that you no longer notice them. Like your ears don't hear them....because of the constant auditory stimulation. I bet if I spent some time researching this, which I am not going to do, there would be study after study showing how we adapt to 'not hearing' the sounds we are constantly stimulated by.

I know this to be true, because once those sounds are gone, the emptiness they leave behind is deafening. Only people who know loss can understand this. It's not just the physical emptiness their absence leaves behind, but the empty waves of sound too. I'm so keenly aware of this silence, pretty much all the time, despite the fact that Aspen is a very intelligent 4 year old that never (and I do mean never) shuts up. Oddly, in the constant barrage of sounds put out by her, there is still the void of the sounds made by Vail. Even after 8 months, it's there. It every moment. No squeaky cabinet doors and drawers being constantly opened and closed. No emptying and refilling of those same drawers and cabinets. No heavy footed walking up and down the hall. No pointing and saying 'mommy.' No demands for baby snacks. No squabbling between sisters. No calling for Luna the dog. I could go on all day. The sound of her voice; all the little noises she made throughout the day, I miss them all. It goes way beyond that really. I'm not a psychologist or a neurologist and I would never claim to know anything beyond what I learned in my undergrad science education and years as a paramedic. But what I do know is that when you lose someone as close to you as a child is, you physically and psychologically change on a cellular level. I would go as far to say that the receptors in your brain process information differently. And I don't just mean grief brain or depression or ptsd. Of which I have all three, I'm sure. Those sounds, the ones that your brain stopped hearing because of the repetitive frequency...those same sounds...are now missed by your brain cells. As if the lack of stimulation is so disruptive that it causes shock. And now, post-loss, your awareness of the absence of those sounds is so heightened that has become overstimulating. To the point of causing pain. Yes, you heard me correctly: The emptiness of the silence is overstimulating. I'm sure this sounds like an oxymoron at best and psychotic as worst. Maybe it is. Both at the same time.

Aspen doesn't nap much anymore, unless she is extremely exhausted. On the rare occasion when she does and Steve is gone for work, the silence is the house is traumatizing. In those moments, the emptiness pulsates like an ultrasonic weapon or an EMP. And the paralyzing loneliness follows. Of course, the loneliness is always there, no matter how much company I keep. It's impossible to be alone with a 4 year old in your house. Aspen constantly needs something, or wants to play something. The demand for my attention is never-ending. Even when Steve is home and we are all together, I am still lonely. Lonely for a little brown-eyed girl lounging in my lap. No matter how many people fill my heart, my life and my home, this loneliness will always persist. The loneliness and the silence are companions.

One of the saddest things I hear from SUDC parents is that they lose their support system when they have another child. As if a new baby erases the loss of their child. The void has been filled with a new life. Everything must be better now because you have somewhere to direct your love. I cringe when I hear people talk about how common this sentiment is. I could have 100 beautiful children of my own, my heart brimming with love for them all, and it won't fill the void left by Vail. Their sounds won't drown out the silence. Or banish the loneliness. Those things are permanent fixtures in my life now. Vail is gone and in her place is a dark hole that I have to learn to live with. Ignoring it won't make it go away. No child we may be blessed with in the future will negate it. I think there is power in the acknowledgment of this fact. There is strength in understanding that the darkness, the silence and loneliness will always be there. I don't know if I will ever find peace, but if there is peace to be had, it is in acceptance of the fact that any joy this life may bring us is intricately tied to the pain of losing Vail. Joy won't ever be pure and unadulterated. It won't ever feel like it did before. Joy will walk hand in hand with the sadness. Every moment, every experience, no matter how amazing, will have darkness. Because every single one of those moments should include Vail. And they don't. Somehow, and I won't pretend to have any idea how, we have to accept this and learn to live with it. We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Train our brains to accept the silence, in the same way they used to accept the noise. Train our hearts to hold the pain next to the joy; in tandem instead of in conflict.

I imagine this is a one-day-at-a-time process. Which, as cliche as it sounds, is pretty much the only way to live after losing a child. Really, it's the only way any of us should live. If losing Vail has taught me anything other than how deep despair can truly be, it is that all we are promised is the present moment. Not another hour, or another day, and certainly not another month or year. Enjoy the moment. Don't worry about cleaning up the mess or if they ruin their clothes with paint. In all honesty, this is still hard for me. Aspen will get out her paint or her slime and make a mess and ruin her clothes and I catch myself cringing or worrying. But now, I quickly remind myself that it doesn't matter. Clothes can be cleaned or replaced. Messes removed with some elbow grease. Memories can't be unmade. Joy can't be unfelt. Even if it is the simple kind a 4 year old experiences when they paint. Think back on your memories from when you were a child. Maybe you had a fun and free childhood. I didn't. My grandmother was constantly controlling. Messes and noise were not allowed. I still remember her favorite catch phrase: "no unnecessary noise." Something my 6 year old self just didn't understand. What I did understand when she said that to me was that she was irritated by me and whatever it was I was doing at that moment. And that sucked the joy out of my childhood. Vail only had 16 months of life. Some SUDC children had more, some less. I hope that Vail had more good moments and memories with her mommy than bad ones.

Aspen deserves a happy childhood. My dream for her is that she grows up and says that she knows it was unbearable for all of us to lose Vail but her childhood was happy and she always felt loved. A challenge that will require balancing the joy and pain. Accepting the empty silence.

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