"We always pray for Grayson and talk to him in heaven," the TV personality tells PEOPLE of daughter Skylar's sweet bedtime routine
Gretchen Rossi is getting real about the impact of grief on her family after the loss of her partner Slade Smiley's son.
Grayson Arroyo-Smiley died on Feb. 5 at age 22 after battling a rare form of brain cancer, diagnosed when he was just 5 years old. He underwent 30 brain surgeries over the course of his life.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Gretchen shares how the couple is coping with the loss as they balance raising their 4-year-old daughter Skylar while trying to stay present.
"For many months we just were not well," Gretchen, 44, tells PEOPLE, sharing that Slade, 54, "just did not wake up happy — and it was my job to keep him moving forward for our daughter."
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Though Skylar was just 3 when her brother died, the little girl seemingly understands her parents' emotions. "She can pick up on it," Gretchen says of her daughter, who prays for Grayson every night.
"We always pray for Grayson and talk to him in heaven. And she is the sweetest thing ever. And I can't tell you how many times she says, ‘Mommy, daddy, I miss Grayson.' It's just so sweet when she says those things."
Continues Gretchen, "So there's been this difficulty of finding that balance of being able to go through your own emotional grief — but also still be present and there for her where she doesn't carry that burden. Because she's so young. And she's so super sensitive and so highly aware of what's going on. She's very in tune with all that. So when she sees us struggling, she knows. And so it's hard. We really have to watch it."
Though it's been difficult for the family, Gretchen also wants her daughter to understand death as "a part of life."
"There's a part of it that we know is important that she understands and knows because that's going to be a part of life."
Additionally, Gretchen stresses that it's important for Skylar to know why her parents are upset and not think it's in any way related to her.
"She comes right up and she always asks, ‘Mommy and Daddy, are you sad about Grayson?’ And she knows it," Gretchen says. "She knows what we're sad about. That's what's so fascinating about her."
On Feb. 7, Gretchen announced the tragic news of Grayson's death on her Instagram page, sharing a tribute and photo memories.
"Our rational minds told us this day might come, but our hearts always held onto the hope that this day would not come to fruition 💔," she began. "We are beyond devastated and heartbroken over the loss of Gray. 😔 Grayson Arroyo-Smiley was such a special human being. He was an Angel on this earth and an incredible warrior…a warrior like no one has ever seen before."
"He fought everyday through his pain and discomfort to find joy in the smallest of things. He was always singing & dancing & laughing despite his circumstances."
Continued Gretchen, "He was a true beacon of light and hope. Although his life was cut short on earth he made an incredible impact on so many people. The Lord knew his life had purpose and would touch many along the way."
"We are forever grateful for the many lessons learned from this little man, and will miss his beautiful spirit immensely. May the Lord hold him in his hands, renew his broken body, and give him life again. 🙏🏻. This isn’t goodbye but rather see you soon little man…..We love you Grayson. You will forever be in our hearts ❤️,"
Signing off, she wrote: "Love your Dad, Gretchen & your sister Skylar Gray."
As Slade and Gretchen push forward, Gretchen tells PEOPLE the bond between her and her partner of 14 years only continues to strengthen, no matter what life challenges they face, as they take turns being a rock for each other.
"We really go back and forth," she says. "We do. When he's down, I'm the rock for him. And when I'm down, he's the rock for me."
The Real Housewives of Orange County alum has also been leaning on girlfriends and giving Slade space here and there to have a little time to himself. Ultimately, however, they prefer to be together.
"I'm so blessed to have such a great guy in my life. He's just a great guy," she shares of the entrepreneur, who was the original star of RHOC, which premiered back in 2006. Rossi joined in season 4.
"Slade and I have just always gotten each other and we just, we get through it — and we have been through more things in our relationship than most people deal with in a lifetime."
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