The Grief of Infertility

Infertility is a very painful struggle. The pain is similar to the grief over losing a loved one, but it is unique because it is a recurring grief. When a loved one passes they are not coming back and you know that they are not going to rise from the dead. You must process their death and go through all the appropriate stages to overcome the grief and move on with your life. This can also be quite painful, don’t get me wrong.

The grief of infertility is quite different. Infertile couples are grieving the loss of a baby that they may never know. They think about the baby that could have mommy’s eyes or daddy’s dimples. And each and every month they have hope that that baby might be conceived and that they may actually get to meet that baby. No matter how many times you tell yourself that it will be ok if you’re not pregnant or try to prepare yourself for the bad news, there is still hope that this month could be the month. Then the dreaded news comes, and the grief comes back. And this process is repeated each and every month, year after year. It is like having a deep wound that keeps reopening just as it is starting to heal.

As the couple’s journey evolves they will start infertility treatments. The testing is quite invasive and can be embarrassing for both parties. You start to feel like a pin cushion and a science experiment, and to top it off you pay a lot of money to feel this way.

Infertility will eventually end in one of three ways:
  1. The couple will finally conceive that baby
  2. The couple will stop infertility treatments and choose to live without children
  3. The couple will find another way to parent (fostering or adoption)

It can take years for couples to get to the final stage of infertility. This is why it is so important for infertile couples to have emotional support during their journey. A lot of people don’t know what to say and often end up saying the wrong thing which ends up making the journey that much harder for the couple. Knowing what not to say is very important if you want to be supportive. Here are some things to consider:

Don’t tell them to relax
If a couple has reached the stage that they are classified as an infertile couple then that means they have been trying for at least a year. The purpose of this one year mark is to filter out the couples who just needed to “relax” and find the couples that are in fact infertile. Making comments like “you just need to relax” will actually create more stress for the couple, especially the woman. The woman already feels like she is broken or like she is doing something wrong when there is most likely a physical problem that is preventing them from conceiving. Infertility is a diagnosed medical condition that must be treated by a doctor. Even with treatment there will be some couples that will never be able to successfully conceive. Relaxation is not a cure for infertility.

Don’t complain about your pregnancy
Seriously, being around pregnant women is hard enough when you are infertile. Seeing your growing belly is another constant reminder of what they don’t have. That being said, pregnancy is not always easy either. And you have every right to vent about it but maybe consider who you are venting to. Your infertile friend would do anything to be in your shoes and would tolerate the discomfort and pain because it would mean that they finally got what they have been yearning for. Every couple will be different, and some couples will be able to tolerate more than others. Be sensitive to what your friend is going through. Allow her to be happy for you while she is grieving herself.

Don’t minimize their situation
As I said previously, infertility is very painful. In most cases infertile couples are surrounded by families that have children. These couples will watch their friends and families announce pregnancies, watch them throughout those pregnancies, watch those children grow and all the while going home to the stillness of a vacant house. These couples will see the joy of parenthood and feel the void in their hearts when they don’t get to experience the same joy. Making comments like “You don’t know how hard it is to never sleep” are not supportive. These kinds of comments will make the couple feel as though you are minimizing their situation. Would you tell someone that just lost their parent “At least you don’t have to buy birthday presents anymore”? The person that just lost their parent would wish that they could buy their parent another birthday present since it would mean that they were still alive. Just like an infertile couple would stay awake all night long if it meant that they had a child.

Don’t treat them like they are uninformed
For some unknown reason, some people think that if you don’t have kids you have no idea what the responsibilities of parenthood entail. Making comments like “Take my children for the day, you won’t want kids anymore” are not comforting. Sure, you can’t truly understand the responsibilities of parenthood until you are parents. However, if you have been trying for years to conceive then you have also been thinking about the responsibilities of parenthood at the same time. Infertile couples most likely have also been around their fair share of babies.

Don’t say they are not meant to be parents
This is quite possibly the meanest thing you could say to an infertile couple and a slap in the face if you ask me. “Maybe God’s plan for you is to not be a mother”. In my opinion, you cannot get more insensitive than that! You are basically implying that God felt the need to sterilize me? If that is the case then why isn’t he preventing the pregnancies that end in abortion or child abuse? Even if you are not religious the “maybe it’s not meant to be” comments are just as hurtful. Infertility is not a punishment, whether you believe that to be God or Mother Nature.

Don’t push adoption
Adoption is a great option for infertile couples. My husband was adopted so we definitely understand. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we want biological children. There are many issues that infertile couples need to work through before they can make the decision to adopt. In order to come to the decision to love a “stranger’s baby” they need to grieve the loss of the biological child that never was. Fortunately, social workers understand the importance of this grieving process. The social worker that I saw told me that you must shut one door before you can open another and that helped me a lot. The adoption process is quite intensive, so if you have not grieved the loss of your biological child and the hope of a biological child then the adoption process is going to be harder for you. Not only do you have to give up hope of a biological child you also have to be able to love a child that is not your “own”. Some couples are never able to fathom the idea of loving a child that is not their “own” and if that is the case then adoption will never happen. Some couples may not open up about this either, so by pushing adoption you are reopening their infertility wound without even realizing it. If your friend is open about adoption she will talk about it and raise the issue herself. Just wait for her to come to you.

So what can you say to your infertile friends? Unless you are saying “Here, have my baby”, there is nothing that you can say that is going to rid their pain. However, there are some things that you can do to ease their pain.

Do show them you care
Let them know you are there if they need a shoulder to cry on or want to chat. If they are religious, tell them that they are in your thoughts and prayers. Offer similar support that you would give a friend that lost a loved one. By showing them you care you are showing them support and letting them know that they are not alone in their journey.

Do support their decisions
Support them if they decide to stop infertility treatments. This decision is very hard and involves even more grief. Even if the couple decides to adopt they could still be going through the grieving process for a while before they will be at the point that they are ready to begin the adoption process. No matter what their decisions may be, support them. Don’t encourage them to try again and don’t discourage them from adoption. Hear what they have to say, listen to their decision and support that decision not matter what it is. Once an infertile couple resolves their infertility they can finally put that chapter behind them and move on. Do not try to open that chapter again. 

Support them gently, and be there for them. They need you.