Most of us have been raised to believe that grieving happens after someone dies. While this is true, there are many times in our lives that we experience grief, the majority of which are unrelated to physical death. Losses of all shapes and sizes can produce feelings of grief, including disappointments, broken hearts, missed opportunities, and natural life changes. There are over 40 different events that humans go through over the course of a lifetime which have the potential to place us in a state of grieving. One of these is infertility.
Once considered a “woman’s problem” infertility affects men and women equally, impacting around 11% of the population of people of reproductive age. Despite being a relatively common problem, infertility is often shrouded by feelings of shame, confusion, or guilt. It can be an uncomfortable issue to discuss, even with trusted loved ones. This leaves many of those struggling with infertility unable to reach out for support.
Oftentimes, even when they do reach out, many people are met with the common myths surrounding grief instead of a truly helpful support system. These myths stunt emotional healing and make the journey of infertility that much more isolating. Being able to identify the mistakes made by well-intentioned family and friends can make it easier to reject false statements that prevent recovery from grief.
Here, we’ll dive into these myths and how they relate to the context of fertility issues.
Myth 1: Don’t Feel Bad
If you’ve shared with someone that you’re struggling with infertility, the first thing they might tell you is, “Don’t feel bad; I heard that’s a really common problem.” While this may be true, the fact that infertility is common doesn’t make it any less difficult to accept. This statement is misguided because it invalidates the very real emotions caused by infertility. While connecting with others who have had similar life experiences can be helpful, it doesn’t solve all aspects of grief. Each individual grieving heart is unique.
For instance, one couple may grieve the inability to bear children because of underlying health conditions that prevent conception, and others may be grieving recurrent miscarriages that have hindered progress towards a viable pregnancy. A single person or someone going through a divorce can grieve over a missed likelihood of having kids. Perhaps some families envisioned one child that they are unable to have, while others grieving the ability to provide another sibling for children they already have.
To offer compassion when loved ones struggle with infertility, more helpful responses might be, “I hear your pain” and “I understand you had hoped for a large family and now you’re not sure if that will ever materialize.” Instead of telling the person how they should feel, these statements acknowledge the current state that they’re in, allowing them to feel heard, accepted, and understood.
Myth 2: Replace the Loss
In the case of infertility, suggesting alternatives for building a family can seem like good advice (such as choosing adoption if fertility treatments have failed). However, if the person hasn’t yet had a chance to grieve and come to terms with infertility, they may not feel ready to consider other options yet. Instead of trying to rush someone past the grieving process, give them the opportunity to heal from the loss before jumping in with “fixes” to the problem.
It’s true that for many couples who cannot bear children, adoption is a wonderful way to fulfill the dream of becoming parents. Nonetheless, there’s nothing wrong with grieving the fact they were not able to get there by the means they had anticipated. While the end result is still more or less “the same” the journey will be different, and it’s important to allow time to grieve “the journey that would have been.”
A couple who decides to adopt may grieve the fact that they won’t have the joyous surprise of a positive pregnancy test. They may feel grief about not experiencing the process of pregnancy or raising children with the same genetic make-up as themselves. These feelings are all valid and should not be brushed under the rug under the guise of a cure-all alternative.
It’s probably safe to assume that couples who have struggled with infertility for a period of time are well-aware that adoption, fostering, becoming godparents to someone else’s children, or settling into a lifestyle of “pet parenthood” are available options. Instead of suggesting the obvious, give them the opportunity to address their dreams that won’t come to pass. Only then is the grieving heart strong and healthy enough to move forward in a new direction.
Myth 3: Grieve Alone
Although it sounds harsh, the advice to live through the grieving process alone is quite commonplace. While most people won’t outright tell another person to grieve by themselves, subtle cues often send that very message. Despite the fact that grief is a natural part of life and a shared human experience, it makes many people uncomfortable.
Our modern culture doesn’t seem to have a place for grief. Instead of being confronted with the pain that others are experiencing, society would rather have grievers keep their grief to themselves and put on a happy face. If someone advises you to “take some time to yourself,” or “get away for a while” it’s probably because they just aren’t sure how to help you with grief. Seeing you in pain is difficult for them and while they may not realize it, turning you away is a selfish move.
We can’t force others to support us while grieving and it’s not your job to teach others how to properly respond to your grief. Instead, seeking the support of a qualified Grief Recovery Specialist can serve as a much-needed resource where family and friends fall short. Sharing information with loved ones to educate them on infertility and grieving can help (such as this blog) but if that feels like more work than it’s worth, it’s okay not to bother. It’s not an excuse, but remembering that others may be acting out of a place of ignorance rather than malice can make their rejection of your grieving heart a bit easier to understand.
How to Support Others Through Infertility
These are just a few of the many common myths surrounding grief. Don’t make the same mistakes when you learn that others are dealing with fertility issues. Infertility is a profound catalyst of grief and should never be minimized or discounted for the pain it causes. Acknowledge the grief associated with infertility and make yourself available as a non-judgemental listening ear. It never hurts to check-in and remind others that you’re there for them without asking too many questions or pushing them to divulge details that they may not be ready to share. Sometimes being supportive is as simple as just being there.
Because grief is so misunderstood and often downplayed in our society, those struggling with infertility may not even make the full connection that this issue has placed them in a grieving state. Gently encouraging others to share the losses, disappointments, despair, or frustration associated with the process of trying to conceive can help them better understand their feelings. A referral to a Grief Recovery Program may come as a surprise for someone with fertility issues but can also open their eyes to the true nature of what they’re going through. Always greet the grief of others with a spirit of understanding that their journey is above all, unapologetically valid.