Infertility is complex; not just the medical side of treating infertility, but the emotional side of treating it. Essentially, infertility, whether it’s the inability to conceive, frequent miscarriages or otherwise, is loss.
Many couples are surprised by the intensity of their feelings related to infertility. Perhaps this is because grief related to infertility is disenfranchised grief, or grief that is not acknowledged by society.
For example, the loss of a pet, loss of a home and loss of a family member by suicide are all forms of disenfranchised grief. This type of grief is often unaccompanied by cultural standards for how to provide support.
We know what to do when a loved one passes away, we know what to do when someone is sick, but the loss related to infertility is more obtuse and complex. Most of us don’t know how to support someone experiencing it. This can make friends and family feel helpless or anxious; and rather than attempting to provide support we may avoid the subject.
In my work with couples experiencing infertility, a few themes have risen to the top in helping them cope:
Acknowledge the Loss
Just as society as a whole doesn’t acknowledge infertility grief, both women and men struggle individually to acknowledge that their feelings of sadness and loss are legitimate. Infertility takes away one’s ability to plan how or when their family is built — a loss of control over one’s body. Sometimes it’s the loss of a genetic link to our children, or the loss of the experience of pregnancy.
Loss manifests as irritability, sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety and many other emotions. When couples acknowledge that they are experiencing a crisis in their relationship, or a disconnect in how they envisioned their life together, they can begin to understand their feelings and cope with them in healthy ways.
Acknowledge Loss, Then Start Again
Unfortunately, infertility is a long cycle of hope and loss — hope in a late period, hope in a medical procedure, hope in an adoption match. Just as there is hope in the events, there is also loss. These events typically follow in lock-step, and often couples don’t have the time or emotional energy to grieve one before another hits.
Although the experience of loss is highly individual, research by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlines stages of grief. Many experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s more common for us to experience these emotions in a non-linear way. One day we may feel some acceptance, the next, back to anger and bargaining. Rather than chastising ourselves for feeling angry, accept that at this time, it’s useful to feel the emotion rather than fight it off.
By creating space, I mean creating emotional space. Give yourself space, time and acceptance to feel your feelings. Grief isn’t a race; there’s no finish line. There isn’t a right way or wrong way to work through it. Rather than placing rules and expectations on how you should feel, or for how long, allow yourself the space to grieve.
This piece can’t be underestimated. Just as you allow for your own grieving, do the same for your partner. Acknowledge that he might not grieve the same way you do. He might not cry or talk about it like you want to. She might not cry, rather preferring to look forward and be optimistic.
Some find it useful to create a ritual or tangible event to mark the loss. Others use their creative side to sculpt, paint or create something that is a visual manifestation of their feelings.
Identify the friends and family who understand the intensity of your emotions. If you sense they don’t know how to support you, give them some suggestions. Reach out to others experiencing infertility through support groups or online forums.
Feeling understood and supported is paramount to coping. Infertility can be isolating, being in contact with those who “just get it” cuts down on the need for you to explain your feelings or provide background. Find a group of women or men who understand the loss associated with infertility who can accompany you on the road towards healing.
Whitney Barrell, LCSW is a clinical therapist for individuals and couples experiencing infertility. Join an upcoming support group or find out more at www.whitneybarrellcounseling.com.