There’s No ‘Fake It Till You Make It’

Losing a child means never being the same again

Crow’s feet outline my eyes. My forehead is wrinkled and my skin is somewhat pale. I’m out of shape and tired a lot. More than I should be at 33. I wear my heart on my sleeve, in both a good and bad way, and there is this ever-present, mostly low-lying aura of anxiety on autopilot that surrounds me – like remembering to breathe or beat my heart.

I am a bereaved mother.

I try to recall what I was like before my daughter Peyton died of cancer. I can barely remember, even though those memories should still be fairly fresh because her death came just months before my 29th birthday.

I tell myself I was happier then, but maybe that’s just what I’ve taught myself to think. Maybe my “before” image in my mind has become this sort of idealized image of my former self – like when someone dies, and despite the fact that they (like all of us) were severely flawed, their family can only recall the good parts of their personalities at their funeral:

“Oh, Bob was always such a charmer” or “Oh, Bob sure knew how to make everyone laugh” and “Never met a person who could grill a meaner steak than Bob.” 

Only I remember it like:

Before Peyton I would smile and laugh all the time. Before Peyton I was fit and active, healthy and full of energy. Before Peyton I was successful. Before Peyton I had patience. Before Peyton I was a newlywed with a perfect marriage. I was happy. The world was my oyster.

The problem with both of these scenarios is that no matter how you want to remember the person, there is no bringing them back. My former self might as well lie down next to good ol’ Bob and his mean steaks.

Ricki Lake once did a show about child loss with an “expert” guest who told a bereaved mother, who had lost her child just five months prior, that it was time to move on to the fifth stage of grief – acceptance. His advice for getting there? “Fake it till you make it.”

Really? The best way to get over the loss of your child is to “fake it till you make it?” Does that platitudinous line of crap make you want to puke? Yeah, me too.

I, like many of you I imagine, was floored by these comments because not only were they callous, guilt-inducing, and simply untrue, but because they also gave the bereaved parents on the panel a false sense of hope that grief is something that can be rushed through or gotten over. It can’t. Grieving is a process. It is hard work. It takes time. 

Look, I’m no therapist or doctor. The fanciest degree I have is a bachelor’s from a small liberal arts college, and I certainly don’t have my own TV show. But I can promise you that whether you lost your child last week, or 60 years ago, you will never get over it.

Got that?

You will never get over losing your child.

You will move forward. You will find joy again. You will learn to love life and to laugh, but you will never be who you were before your loss, and you will never un-lose your child. That is a reality worth grieving over. There simply is no faking it until you make it.

I’ve spent more than four years living with the loss of my daughter. I’m happy most days. My life, for the most part, is joyous. But my reality also is that all of the joys and pains and ups and downs of these last four years have been experienced with a sort of undercurrent of grief pushing me along for the ride. Sometimes the grief is like a tidal wave, unforgiving and knocking me down out of nowhere. Most days, it just sort of ripples beneath the surface, keeping me from ever feeling completely balanced. Every decision, big or small, is somehow colored by the experience of losing my first child to cancer. 

I fear more because of her. I love more because of her.

Everything from how I parent my rainbow babies (those born after you’ve experienced child loss) to the choices my husband and I make in our careers is influenced by having lost Peyton. In this way, she will always very much be a part of our family. 

Why am I telling you this? 

I guess because I want to validate your experience. Despite the psychobabble you will hear on this show or that show, despite what your friends and experts whose children are all living tell you about how you should or should not feel after the death of your child – your grief, your feelings, and your timeline of healing are all completely normal responses to an abnormally horrific type of loss. If your therapist or grief counselor doesn’t agree with this, find another one.

The sooner we (and society with all of its “experts”) accept our loss as a permanent and ever-present fiber in the cloth of our being, the better we can adapt to our new normal and move toward healing.

True healing for a bereaved parent does not come from moving on, faking it till we make it, or leaving the pain and grief of losing our child in some dark, taboo place, never to be discussed again. 

True healing for a bereaved parent comes in honoring and holding tight to the love we feel for the child we have lost, even though that love will always hurt to some degree, and allowing that love to light the way in our quest to find hope once again.

This article originally ran on Still Standing, and is reprinted here with permission.