"Fake It "Till You Make It" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
The thing that struck me most in the immediate aftermath of losing our child was the sadness. Even as I say it, that sounds like such a small word. Too simple a word and emotion to describe those first few weeks but it’s right. I was debilitatingly sad. So sad I couldn’t think of what to do with my body which felt alien and broken. So sad I couldn’t figure out if I was hungry or tired. So sad that left by myself I would have laid down in bed and just not moved.
But choices did get made in those first few awful days. Thank God Erich was there because he took on most of the heavy lifting for both of us. I did manage to participate in some of the things happening around me. I remember talking to the funeral home, talking to my Church Moderator about who was going to fill in for me at church for the next few weeks, and talking to Erich about getting out of our house that held many memories for a few days. I know I spoke and moved and did things in those first few days but looking back I have no notion how. Because there, at the edges of everything, was the sadness. Not threatening, not scary, just there waiting to envelop me. I know I scared Erich in the weeks after we lost Teigen when I told him I’d be okay with not waking up. I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t want to hurt myself, I was just fine with the good Lord taking me home so I could be with my baby.
My world was now split in two. There was life before Teigen and life after and in my grieving I’ve come to understand is that I have to grieve both the loss of my child and the person I was becoming as her mother. Erich and I had to grieve the life we’d started to imagine for ourselves and our daughter. Silly arguments about how young is too young for your first Notre Dame game and what we’d do if she came home and said she wanted to be a cheerleader. Wondering if Teigen would get my love of school or Erich’s athletic ability and both of us hoped she wouldn’t have my nose or Erich’s cowlick.
The bitterness of having so many hopes and dreams wrenched away in a matter of hours was a side effect of loss that neither of us saw coming. Beyond the tangible elements of coming home from the hospital without our baby, I think this decimation of plans and dreams and hope is what has lingered the longest and most painfully.
After three weeks I went back to work, not because I was ready but because at some point you have to rip that particular band-aid. My people were exceedingly patient and kind, but I know my work suffered. I go back and read my sermons from this period; they’re coherent, but I have no real memory of them. My Music Director and our wonderful Church Secretary really kept the church afloat during this time. Thankfully this was still COVID times - something I never thought I’d say - and making Pastoral Care visits wasn’t an option. Which is good because I would have just sat in people’s homes and wept. I was able to keep in contact with people through cards, phone calls, and text messages, and life kept moving.
That’s the obnoxious thing about grief, the world around you doesn’t stop. Your world might have changed, and you might be forever changed, but the world around you keeps plugging along as always blissfully unaware that you’re a husk of your old self.
Eventually, the days of not being able to get out of bed became fewer. I wasn’t crying every day, and with the help of a friend all the nursery furniture we’d been gifted but thankfully hadn’t put together yet got moved to the basement so I was able to go in our dining room again. And somewhere in there, I adopted a more or less “fake it ‘till you make it” approach to God and belief and the whole faith thing.
I never lost my faith. I never doubted God’s existence in part because figuring out the alternative would have taken more energy than I had. And to be honest, believing in God gave me someone to be angry with other than myself. There were days that I screamed and raged and cried to God, begging to know why my child was taken. Pleading to be told what I’d done wrong. I still have those days every once in a while.
But it occurred to me pretty early on that Teigen is fine. She’s not hurting or unhappy or unsafe. That child was always a gift from God as all children are, so when she left us, she simply returned home to God, safe in the heart of the one who created her. I wouldn’t trade any day of being her mama even with the pain of our separation, so that means that I can live with the knowledge that my baby is okay as I try to figure out life and who I am without her here. That’s where the faking it comes in - on the days that the sadness reaches out or I’m feeling particularly angry with God I do my best to keep plugging along, doing my work, spending time with y’all, writing sermons, reading books. Thankfully these kinds of days have become uncommon, but when they do come up this approach works most of the time.
If you and I have contact on one of these sad days you likely won’t know it because of the fake it ‘till you make it approach, but I want to be clear that that doesn’t make our interactions on those days insincere or genuine. It’s not that I enjoy your company less on those days. It’s more that I’m using my little coping strategy to stay in the work, to stay grounded in the sure knowledge that not only is my child in the very heart of God, I am too.
As a way to bring this rather nebulous collection of words to an end, I want to tell you about an unlikely interview that I have watched many times since discovering it. It’s a conversation between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert from a few years ago right after Cooper’s mother Gloria Vanderbilt passed away. Cooper talks about the letter Colbert wrote him after her passing and then they go on to have this raw and tender conversation about grief. It’s so special, please go home and look it up on YouTube.
I could probably quote most of the interview to you I’ve watched it so many times. But I was most struck by something Stephen Colbert says. You might not know that Colbert is the youngest of eleven kids. When he was 10 years old his father and two closest brothers in age were killed in a plane crash. Speaking of his mother’s crucifix he inherited when she passed away at 92 Stephen describes his mother praying “to our Lady and say, ‘She knows what it is to lose to a child.’”
Of course in our tradition we don’t pray to Mary, but the same knowledge holds true; God knows what it is to lose a child, to lose part of God's-self. God is a parent who’s gone through the pain of a child’s dying and then called that child back to herself. Back to God’s heart where my child also exists. I don’t know exactly how that works, exactly what such an arrangement looks like, nor when I will also get to be part of that sort of existence but I am comforted in the knowledge that God knows my pain firsthand. God is part of this terrible club of parents who’ve lost a child. God knows the anger, the unfairness, the debilitating sadness, and yet God chooses to love. God chooses to embrace. God chooses us.