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  • The Vail Project

When my child grieves

This is the worst. The only thing more heartbreaking than the pain of my own loss, is the heartache felt by my surviving child. If I can barely string together 5 words about my feelings how can I expect my 4 year old to cope?

For the most part, Aspen has been a rock star through all of this. She listened and really processed what we told her the morning after baby Vail died. We made sure she knew the truth. That Vail was gone and she wasn't coming back. When she asked why, we told her the only thing that we could and still be honest. We don't know why. She understood that baby Vail went to be with Jesus. None of us understand why.

She has gone to counseling with me, and he said that she was doing very well and didn't need further sessions. That made me feel like slightly less of a failure. Steve and I are very lucky that Aspen is such a highly emotionally intelligent child. She is extremely perceptive, very good at reading faces and feelings, and an amazing communicator. All of these things have helped her with the loss of her sister. Not that anything could make it better.

Aspen is like us, she has good days and bad days. She talks about her sister every single day. Most of the time in passing or when she is playing. I like to believe that Vail is a perfect little angel, sitting in Aspen's room, playing along side her.

Today was a tough day for our little girl. She had a homework page from school that asked her to draw two people who knew Jesus. She drew herself and baby Vail. Pigtails and all. It broke my heart. But, it showed her understanding of where Vail truly is.

At bath time, she swam and played for an hour. Aspen loves her bath. So did Vail. They always played together at bath time. I know Aspen misses Vail in the bath, how could she not? Tonight, she was overwhelmed with emotions and sadness. She cried and cried and told daddy and I that she missed baby Vail and that she was very sad that Vail went to be with Jesus. "I wish she was here." I got her out of the tub, and wrapped her in her towel and just held her. Then Aspen said "Anna knew Elsa was in another world and she was sad. Vail is in another world now." She then said she knew baby Vail wasn't coming back from that world (all a reference to Frozen 2). Daddy told her that we love her, and that we will always be here for her. Then we both told her what we always have, that baby Vail will always be in her heart, making her strong and brave. Aspen said that she wants another baby. Another sister. Right now. Daddy and I said that we do too. And hopefully one day we will.

After she was tucked in bed, I began to think about the best ways to support a grieving child. My first instinct was to say to myself "how the hell do I know?" But then I realized that I did know. That Steve and I have been doing it since the day we lost Vail. Here is my short list of the most important ways to support a child through grief.

1. Be Honest. This is the most important thing you can do to provide support. Never lie about what happened or imply that the loss isn't permanent. No matter how hard this is to do, it's important not to break your child's trust. I don't have the words to adequately explain how difficult it was to to tell Aspen her sister was gone and not coming back. It was important for her to know, even though it broke us to say it out loud to her. Kids aren't less intelligent than adults, they just process information differently. You don't have to be graphic or say words like 'dead' or describe what happened. Just be honest in a simple, clear way.

2. Support Their Process. Everyone grieves differently. Children grieve as deeply as adults do. In many ways, despite the differences, I can see every day how much Aspen is grieving her sister. She shows it more in her behavior than with her words. She plays differently now and talks to herself more than she did before. Sometimes she cannot control her emotions or anger. Just like Steve and I. Sometimes she lashes out. Of course, that can just be 4 year old behavior. And often it is. But, there is a difference when she is displaying the behavior because of her pain. It's darker and less tantrum-like. Know that the best thing you can do is to be there. Show up, emotionally, when your child needs you. No matter how hard it is for you. And it will be hard. Watching her pain is the hardest thing we have ever had to do, after burying her sister of course.

3. Allow Them Room to Grieve. Take a moment and really evaluate how difficult it is for you, as an adult to understand the loss of your loved one. To process it. To feel that level of pain and sadness. The emptiness. Then imagine you are 4 years old. All of that emotion wrapped up in a child that is only just learning how she fits into the world. They will question their place in the world, their place in your family. Aspen asks at least 5 times a day, a version of the same question: Will you always love me? Will you be with me forever? You will never leave me? I will always be with you? What she is really saying is that she knows Vail is gone and if Vail can leave then she can too. That is scary. For her. For us. But, that is our life now. One where our 4 year old has to question her own mortality. Allowing a child to feel the loss means giving her the latitude to feel her pain and express her loss in her own way. She can play and laugh one minute and be a total mess the next. Just like me.

Be kind to your child. That is easier said that done. Steve and I are so buried in our own grief sometimes that we lash out at Aspen. At her needing us, for all her little kid things. Get me popcorn. I need to go potty. Where's my drink? Caring about those little things is the best way to support your child. Keep life as normal as possible. Normal is relative. The little things make it okay, when you're little. The big things have been blown up. It isn't just my life or Steve's life that imploded when Vail died, it was Aspen's too. And her life changed in one big way that ours didn't....her parents changed. Overnight we weren't the people she has grown up with the past 3 years. That is a huge adjustment for her. I try every day to give a little grace. I try to be kind to her, even when I can't be kind to myself. It's so very hard. Every part of it. Take care of each other.

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