If you spend any time on the internet, you've probably seen her: 7-year-old Ava Ryan, whose hilarious YouTube and Instagram videos have been racking up millions of views in recent weeks.
She's adept at creating side-splitting characters such as Charlene, your hot-mess friend, or Bossy Boss Lady, who hates her employees and really wishes she were on a cruise instead of sitting behind a desk. But for Katie Ryan, Ava's mom, her daughter's surprisingly sharp sense of humor means so much more — it's what helped her get through the grief of losing her younger sister Sarah, who died when Ava was only a toddler.
"Even in those times, she was able to make me laugh," Ryan, 32, told TODAY. "My parents, too — they were in such despair and grief. I think Ava gave them a reason to kind of keep going. She became our sunshine — I know it's kind of cliché — in the darkest time of our lives."
Ryan's sister Sarah, who died in 2011, had cerebral palsy, which made it difficult for her to walk, and Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder that involves intellectual disability and causes constant hunger, leading to obesity. The sisters were three years apart in age but close friends, sticking by each other's sides while growing up in the Midwest.
"I always kind of looked at myself as her protector in the world, because people weren't always nice," Ryan said.
Yet Sarah was always cheerful, her sister recalled — and she loved babies.
"From the minute Sarah found out I was pregnant, she was so excited," Ryan said. "She was always texting me advice."
In the short time they had together, Sarah formed a close bond with her niece, all the while battling respiratory issues related to her conditions.
"She would sit with Sarah, they'd play with stickers," Ryan said. "We tried to get them together at least an hour a day, anything to help Sarah get better, to fight through it. Sarah was so adorable. She had such a kind face. Ava really took to that and genuinely loved her."
In August 2011, Sarah died after going into septic shock due to a ruptured intestine, caused by a hernia.
"It was such a weird time in my life because I was going through the most grief I'd ever experienced, but I also had this little girl with me who I just adored," Ryan said. "I think just having a reason to get up, and not kind of wallow in my sadness ... I was able to put it aside."
Shortly after that, Ryan began to record some of the funny things her daughter was doing and saying.
"She started to develop this really silly personality and I was taking videos," Ryan said. "I didn't think her humor was going to translate to so many people. I just thought she was funny to me, because she's my daughter."
Looking back, she wonders if she was also trying to heal her parents of their grief.
"It never really goes away," Ryan said. "Maybe a part of me was trying to make them happy."
Today Ava is a bona fide star, even if she hasn't yet started second grade. She carries a notebook around to jot down ideas as they strike her, and given their newfound internet popularity, Ryan and her daughter have even started to work with various brands doing social media endorsements.
Ryan insists that Ava comes up with most of the video ideas on her own.
"She's naturally funny," Ryan said. "Her take on the world is innocent, but also a little mature, and I think people relate to that in some strange way. She's so smart for her age when it comes to picking up social cues."
That's apparent in the videos, when watching Ava roll her eyes like an adult might after a particularly exasperating (but pretend) phone call, or the Vine the Ryans believe started it all: a young Ava gazing at a pink sunset sky and nonsensically muttering, "I smell like beef."
Her aunt Sarah isn’t here to watch the videos, but Ryan likes to think she’d get a laugh out of them if she was alive.
"I honestly think Sarah would have found Ava hysterical," Ryan said. "She loved to laugh. She had the best laugh in the world. She would have gotten such a kick out of her."