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  • The Vail Project

The Magnitude of Loss: A Daily Struggle

My internal dialog has changed significantly since the day Vail died. Understandably, as I have changed in ways I never knew were possible. Ways that should not be possible. It is well established that there is power in self-talk, our internal dialog. "Focusing on negative thoughts may lead to decreased motivation as well as greater feelings of helplessness. This type of critical inner dialogue has even been linked to depression" (Very Well Mind).

So how has my inner dialog changed in the absence of Vail? Well, not in the way you might expect. Oddly enough, there is very little self-talk going on in my mind. What used to be constant stream of thoughts, daily tasks, and self-criticisms, has turned into almost nothing. The emptiness that consumes my heart has found its way into my mind as well. I often refer to this as numbness. I thought after the shock and initial trauma had passed that this would change. It hasn't. My grief brain, fogginess and lack of focus, are debilitating. And my once amazing multi-tasking skills are non-existent now. When I need to get serious about work for Vail Industries or The Vail Project and the SUDC Coalition...the only way for me to do so to block everything else out. I can't work and take care of Aspen. I can't work and hear anything going on in the background. I must be in a bubble. One where I separate myself from everything around me, including myself. How did I ever work from home and take care of two children? I did it without bearing the weight of my loss. An immeasurable weight. One you cannot possibly understand the pain of bearing, if you haven't experienced it.

Steve and I were watching a show the other day and the main character was admitting how hard she was on herself. How she wanted to be supremely successful at everything: her career, her marriage, motherhood. Steve commented that I was exactly the same way. And he was right. Or he used to be right. That describes who I used to be perfectly. I always wanted to be a super mom. One who could handle anything with grace and confidence. While I am not sure that I ever achieved such perfection, I constantly strived for it and was tough on myself when I didn't live up to my own impossible standards. Perfect example: the night that Vail died I had worked up this extreme snack project for Aspens pre-school class. It was her first time having to bring snacks and I wanted to be the quintessential mom and make them creative and fun. So we got the kids to bed and hurried to get started on this snack project. Steve and I spent 45 minutes gluing googly eyes on to clothes pins and adding colorful pipe cleaners to create little butterflies out of snack baggies. They were super cute. But during that time, Vail was dying in her bed. And I was too busy to put the camera on, or check to make sure that her owlet monitor was working properly. Too busy trying to be perfect. We have no idea if we could have resuscitated her if we had be alerted by the owlet or if we had seen her arrest on the camera. But that is an unknown we will have to live with for the rest of our lives. A question that is a part of my new daily internal dialogue. What if I hadn't been trying to be perfect? What if I had checked the owlet and turned the camera on? Would she still be here? Answers we will never have. Questions we will live with forever.

I know its not healthy to blame myself. And some days I don't. Some days I do. Steve is the same. Some days are harder than others, but every day sucks. The magnitude of the day varies, but the baseline remains the same. Every day, I wake up and I remind myself that Vail is gone. I don't want to, but if I don't, I can hear her call for me. And then I go to her room and have PTSD flashbacks of the moment we found her. That is not a way to start the day, because when it does begin with those memories, spiraling down in inevitable. I wish I could say that those flashbacks were becoming less frequent, but that would be a lie. I wish I could say honestly that my internal dialogue didn't include a little pep talk that goes something like: "just focus on making it through the day. It's just one day." But it does. Because one day is all I can do and when I think about all the days that we have strung together since 9/17/2019, it feels impossible. When I wake every morning unsure if I can survive the day, how is it possible that we have survived 242 days without her? I don't know the 'how." I do know the why...the only reason I survive is for Aspen and Steve.

Vail's birthday was 10 days ago. I have wanted to write a blog post since then but haven't been able to summon the courage, or energy, or motivation. I have been sitting still with my new reality. The one where we will celebrate Vail's birthday every year without her. It is unfair and unimaginable every day (even though I live it every day, her loss is still unimaginable) but it is particularly unfair on her birthday. A day to celebrate the beginning of life, a day full of memories of her birth and our happiness. Now that day is filled with other things. Sadness, pain, regret, unfulfilled destinies. I haven't had much to say about it and still don't.

What followed was Mother's Day. A day that has always been a little tough for us. First, because of Charlotte and lack of acknowledgement for Steve as a father. That always made Mother's Day sour for him. Then it was because we weren't sure if we were ever going to have a baby. After the loss of our first pregnancy, we spent a year in fear that I couldn't get pregnant and we weren't ever going to have the family we both wanted so deeply. When we were blessed with Aspen, Mother's Day made a recovery at the Nelson household. Double when we had Vail, our little unexpected miracle. Now, in the wake of her loss, the joy of the day is gone for me. I'm only half a mother now. Or that is how it feels. I will always be Vail's mommy, but let's face it, nothing will ever be the same. Those special days, the holidays, they are filled with her absence. And that void casts a shadow on any expected joy that the day should bring. Sadly, I have been informed that this doesn't really get much better over time. Most of the SUDC parents I know, despite the years since their loss, feel much the same way I do, only 7 months out from Vail's death. 7 months, 7 years, time doesn't make a difference. Time doesn't heal all things. Time won't take away my pain or soften the loss or fill the emptiness. Of course, we will find simple joy and some happiness in life's moments again, Aspen will make sure of that. But there won't ever be a Mother's Day or a Thanksgiving or a Christmas where Vail's absence won't be felt. Where that pain won't cast its dark shadow.

So learning to navigate life with this loss is a challenge. And my internal dialogue is no exception. The lack of input from my conscious or subconscious is noticeable. So I drift through most days with an empty mind to compliment my empty heart. I read a comment written by a grieving mother on a facebook post the other day. The post was about grief brain and the fog that comes with it. She said that it took her 5 years to feel like her brain went back to its pre-loss state. 5 years before she felt like a capable human being again. I feel fortunate that I can force myself into productivity if I have to. Just block everything else out. Maybe in 5 years I'll be able to multitask again. Maybe in 5 years I'll have a reason to. Right now, my tasks are Vail Industries forward and support my family through their grief. Seems simple right?

Steve says I need to do a better job of ending my posts on a positive note. Which, honestly, is hard for me. But here is my attempt at it today. Despite where you are in your life, whether you are a grieving parent like me, or you are just figuring out how to survive the pandemic, the way you talk to yourself matters. Maybe it's not such a bad thing that my internal dialogue is empty. At least it isn't all negative. Take one minute every day and say something positive about yourself. It can be something you are doing, or something you feel. You can say it quietly to yourself in the car, or out loud in the mirror. Whatever works for you. That way, no matter what your daily struggles are or how heavy the weight of what you are carrying is, your one positive self-talk moment can help to sustain optimism. Positive self-talk can help you to recognize and promote hope and joy (Psychology Today). So I guess I should listen to this advice myself and try to do better. Maybe I can fill the emptiness in my mind with one positive thought a day. Maybe that is the first step back to being a decent mother (perfect is not something I long for anymore). Perfect isn't something any of us should long for. Be kind to yourselves.


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