Megan Dean was 4 years old when her baby sister, Rylie, died of a heart condition. But Dean, who has four sisters in total, knew she wanted to share her recent wedding day not only with her living siblings, but also with the sister she only knew for eight days.
"Because I was so young when Rylie died, I don't remember much — just small memories that I have cherished for so many years," Dean, now 23, told TODAY Parents. "I remember being so excited to have another girl in the house...She was a beautiful little baby and reminded me of the dolls I would play with."
Dean's mom, Rebecca Slama, says Rylie, who was born in January 2001 and was her fourth daughter, was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect, hypoplastic left heart syndrome, the day after she was born.
"She literally didn't have half of her heart," says Slama, who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota. "They performed surgery to reroute the way her heart pumped blood ... she made it through that surgery but hours later, her tiny little aorta couldn't keep up with the blood flow and she passed away."
Slama says the loss was devastating for her other daughters — Kate, 2, Megan, 4 and Ellie, 6. "It was awful watching the other kids process losing their sister."
After losing Rylie, Slama and her husband John later had a fifth daughter, Molly. Slama says she has continued to celebrate Rylie's memory by helping her daughters remember the time they spent with their sister.
"We have sent notes to heaven on balloons and later, because it was more environmentally friendly, sky lanterns every year on her birthday — all of us standing out in the cold, saying a birthday prayer for Rylie," said Slama. "We donated a rocking chair to the NICU department in her memory and participate in a heartbeat 5K race that benefits the children's hospital. And I created a special slideshow with all the pictures from when Rylie was alive and sent it to all the girls on Rylie's birthday."
Dean, who lives in Goodrich, Michigan, says it's her parents' way of keeping Rylie's memory alive that inspired her to include her baby sister in her wedding in October 2019.
She enlisted her mom's help by asking for Rylie's pink baby blanket, which she wanted to incorporate into her wedding dress.
"Getting her blanket required my mom and I to open up a box filled with Rylie's things that we hadn't looked at for years," said Dean. "Getting to talk with my mom about her experience and the memories she had was something quite special...I have understood the pain of losing a sister, but have never experienced the heavy loss of a child."
Dean's tailor created a heart-shaped patch from the blanket with Rylie's name embroidered on it, and sewed it to the inside of the wedding gown. Another Rylie-emblazoned heart was made from scrap fabric from the gown. Dean planned to present that to her dad on her wedding day, to place in his suit pocket.
Dean and Slama kept the beautiful additions to the wedding a secret until the big day.
"I was so excited to show my dad our tribute to Rylie," said Dean. "When I showed him the heart, I remember him saying through tears, 'It's her blanket,' and we both began sobbing. My mother joined us afterward and we were all at a complete loss for words for some time."
Dean also surprised her sisters — Ellie, 25, Kate, 20, and Molly, 17 — showing them the hidden heart before her wedding ceremony began.
In January 2020, on what would have been Rylie's 19th birthday, Dean shared photos from her wedding in a moving Facebook post dedicated to her sister.
"This is the blanket you were swaddled in the moment you left our mother's womb," she wrote. "It is what wrapped around you as our mom and dad held you for the first time...This is the blanket you wore during my last memory of you, kissing your forehead for one final time and not wanting to leave your side. I could not fathom celebrating a new beginning without you right there alongside me."