A Grief Unobserved

This is a guest blog post by a friend I met in college, Emily Morrison. She and her husband Dan are dealing with grief due to infertility, and this post is just so relatable for anyone who has also struggled with infertility. It is raw and honest. The following is written by Emily, and is well worth the read:

Grief is a very real thing. It is unlike any other negative experience or feeling I have ever experienced before. For others around me, it is simultaneously expected and unexpected, understood and misunderstood, relatable and unrelatable.  I had experienced various types of grief in the past: grief over the loss of friends simply through growing apart or having a falling out, grief over the loss of pets, grief over the loss of friends and loved ones who died of old age, grief over people who died of terminal illness, as well as those who died unexpectedly and young. However, until I experienced the grief of infertility, I must confess I did not understand how devastating invisible losses could really become, nor how misunderstood, unexpected, and unrelatable it would be for others.

“My grief is bigger than your grief!”

In our culture, people tend to treat grief by the degree of loss they perceive. A loss of a pet, while viewed as hard, and with sympathy, most would never dare to compare it to the loss of a parent, sibling, or child. The loss of a spouse perhaps holds more weight than the loss of a grandparent, the loss of an adult child perhaps more than a miscarriage. But are these degrees really appropriate? Grief is still grief, regardless of the cause. Pain is still pain. People like to categorize pain. The old joke of child-birth being the worst pain still prevails, and who can forget Carol Burnett’s hilarious mental image for childbirth of trying to pull your lower lip over the back of your head? However, when someone is in pain, does telling them that their pain couldn’t be that bad, because a worse pain exists really make the pain any more endurable? When I grieve over a grandparent’s death, will hearing “at least it wasn’t your spouse!” make it any better?

I believe grief is grief, and must be dealt with, sympathized with, comforted, and understood regardless of the cause. The difference between the objects of grief may result in varying success rates in getting through the grief, but that does not make the experience less real, less painful, or less serious. The key word there is “getting through.” I do not believe anyone really gets “over” a loss. They simply get through it. They learn how to keep living, even though a piece of them is gone and will never be replaced.  I can look back on pets whom I lost, and still feel pangs of sadness, and if I dwelt on the thought of them enough, I may even shed a tear. The loss was never filled, I just learned to adapt and work through the pain. Just as an amputee cannot replace the leg they have lost, or go on as if nothing happened, neither can someone who has experienced a loss simply get over it and move on as if the loss doesn’t exist.

I should clarify that I am not just talking about death. A loss can be anything. You can lose a friend simply through growing apart or having a disagreement. You can lose physical objects, like a home to fire or flood. You can lose a pet because they ran away or were stolen. Losing things hurts, regardless of what that thing is. It may be reasonable to say that the higher the value of an item, the greater the loss and the greater the grief. But who determines value? The person who is losing the item determines the value, and therefore determines the amount of loss. In that sense, can I look at someone else’s loss and roll my eyes and think “Why are they so upset? It’s just a _______! It’s no big deal!”?  Although I may not understand why the thing lost holds such value, that isn’t the point. The point is, something of value to them was lost, and they are hurt by that loss.

A Loss Unseen and Misunderstood

Infertility grief is a difficult grief to understand for most people. From my experience, most people have no clue what infertility even means, and treat those who suffer from it in ways they would never treat a person who is grieving over a much more tangible loss, such as the death of a family member. I doubt anyone would go to a funeral and say to a loved one of the deceased:

  • “Oh, it’s okay! Don’t give up hope, they can always come back to life again!”
  • “Have you tried CPR? My friend used CPR on their dying relative and they survived just fine!”
  • “My relatives miraculously recovered, so I’m sure yours can too!”

Of course no one would ever say such ridiculous things. But to someone grieving infertility? Here’s a few things I’ve heard:

  • “Oh, it’s okay! Don’t give up hope, it will happen!”
  • “Have you tried suchandsuch treatment? My friend changed their diet/tried some special hormone vitamin/struggled slightly with infertility and they have three kids now!”
  • “I popped out kids with absolutely zero problems, so don’t be sad because I know you will have kids too!”  

Perhaps it isn’t the same. Perhaps the loss of someone very close to you is worse than infertility. After all, the person or thing was tangible, visible, and real. I’m not really losing something because it didn’t ever exist, right? Just because the thing I lost isn’t visible doesn’t mean it isn’t lost. I am losing a dream, losing a supposed future, losing a life I thought I would have. I will never get to experience things that people (including me)  just assumed would simply happen because that’s how life normally works. I had dreams and ideas about what my future would be. I had dreams of little boys or girls who would take after me and their dad, and how I would play with them, and what I would teach them, and what I would share with them. These things were important to me, and suddenly I was confronted with the reality that I will never live out that life I had envisioned for myself. That life was a fantasy. It stinks! It hurts! It is a true loss!  

Not only is infertility the loss of a dream, it affects the rest of a person’s life in ways other losses may not. For the infertile, the loss of the dream of parenthood has life long effects. For example, it is very easy to feel ostracised and excluded from other people your age or otherwise who have children. Those with kids have lives which revolve around their kids, so it is unsurprising that they would talk about them a lot. This is where the infertility problem strikes. At times it can be downright painful to hear other people talk about their kids because that nagging “If only” thought always pops up. When it isn’t painful, it can be awkward. The infertile cannot relate. They cannot contribute. They feel they must either sit in sullen silence, or simply leave the conversation altogether. Even if they did want to contribute to a conversation, they will sometimes be met with a response of “You don’t know because you don’t have kids.” No doubt those with kids may find it awkward to be around adults who don’t have kids too, as they may be used to the conversation always being about the kids, and if it’s not, what else is there to talk about? This feeling of exclusion may be unjust, but it is there nonetheless. The fear of drifting apart from my friends with kids is very real, and often justified because I have seen it happen.  It doesn’t mean that an infertile person can never converse with or be friends with a parent, it is just more challenging.

This is a problem that will be with the person even into seniorhood. While other people talk about and beam over their grandchildren and children’s accomplishments, the childless person is left silent and desolate.  While families all over the country are preparing Halloween costumes for their little ones, getting ready for graduation season, making fun Christmas traditions, and having playdates at parks and splash pads, the infertile are left alone, reminded sometimes daily of what they are missing out on. They will have no grandchildren or children visiting them in their old age, and taking care of them as they reach the ends of their lives. Who will they share stories and traditions with? Who will they pass down their family heritage to? The lucky ones may have nephews or nieces they can get close to, but not all have this luxury. The road of the infertile is not only painful, it is often very lonely.

The Awkward Topic

Talking about grief can be awkward and very touchy. Infertility particularly is very taboo, and at most times it is just easier and more comfortable to stay silent. There is very often no right thing to say (though there are a lot of wrong things) to someone struggling. It can be hard to know just what the person needs to hear. I would submit that when in doubt, don’t offer advice.  I’ve heard all kinds of advice, some of which has been laughably bad, almost as if the adults giving it don’t understand where babies come from. Some memorable pieces of advice I’ve received are:

  • Just relax!
  • Lose weight!
  • Exercise more!
  • Exercise less!
  • Try this diet!
  • Try this vitamin!
  • Stop trying so hard!
  • Never give up!
  • As soon as you stop trying, it will happen!

First of all, I’m sorry, but the last time I checked, babies are made when a sperm from the daddy meets an egg from the mommy. This has nothing or very little to do with many of the above things.  If all of these things were so important for the baby making process, how do so many accidental or underage pregnancies occur?

Secondly, when you are struggling with infertility, you will doubt yourself and what you’re doing a TON. You wonder if you are even having sex correctly, let alone if you are too stressed about it. Adding more doubt to the situation is not that helpful or encouraging.

Thirdly, infertility is usually not just “I tried a couple of times and still no baby!” It’s an ongoing problem that often has some kind of physical or medical explanation for why the aforementioned sperm is not uniting with the aforementioned egg. It is not the couple’s fault that it’s not working, it is often because something is not functioning as it should within one or both of their bodies. Most people who are truly suffering with infertility have already thought about every possible reason for why it might not be working, and are probably seeking treatment and options with their doctors (who probably knows more about what’s going on than a random friend).

Things to Avoid

A lot of the problems the infertile face can come from others who mean well perhaps, but still end up saying the wrong thing. If you want to know what not to say or do to a friend who is trying to adjust to life without children, here are some things I would say should never be done. The circumstances may vary from person to person, but when in doubt, try to avoid the following advice or platitudes:

Don’t try to solve their problem with some new treatment plan. Odds are they have already considered other plans, and either are currently trying one, or have weighed the options and decided to not go down that road. There are likely more complications to their infertility than you are aware of and offering such solutions will probably hurt more than help. I never once had someone say “Have you tried suchandsuch treatment?” and then thought, “Wow! I never thought of that! It’s all so simple! I’m sure I’ll get pregnant now!” It just doesn’t happen.  Most people don’t really seem to realise the emotional, physical, and hormonal roller coasters a person doing treatments has to go through, nor how expensive those treatments can be. Getting treated is not simply a one and done easy fix. It’s hard, it’s painful, it’s expensive, it isn’t a guarantee,  and it isn’t something to be treated flippantly as a cure-all. If you don’t believe me, just imagine driving a used car off of a cliff every month. That’s how costly certain treatments can be, not to mention all of the physical and emotional stress it can put someone through.

The same goes for adoption. Very often I have been asked “Have you thought of adopting/fostering?” The answer is yes. However, there are reasons it has not been pursued, at least at this point in time. I applaud and admire those who have a burden and heart to adopt or foster, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Even if it is something a couple is willing to consider, it is not an easy process by any means, and comes with its own heartache, expenses, and trials. It is not a consolation prize, it is a calling. Whether or not they decide to pursue it is their decision and if they have decided it isn’t for them, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. They are just people who have not felt led to go down that path.

Don’t try to downplay what they’re feeling, or the severity of the problem they are facing. Like I said before, grief and pain cannot really be measured. Infertility is one of the most devastating things I’ve ever experienced, and for others to look at my grief as not that big of a deal hurts deeply. It is a real grief, and a real pain, and a real sorrow. Depression from grief is REAL. It is not something you just push aside and put on a “stiff upper lip” with. It has to be dealt with. If I cry, don’t tell me to stop. If I’m sad, don’t tell me I shouldn’t be. If I have trouble seeing babies, mothers, and kids, don’t tell me that’s wrong. Because it isn’t wrong to grieve. Some perhaps get through it faster, and that’s okay, but either way it has to be gotten through.  

In addition, try not to make light of the situation by making a joke, such as “Well at least you don’t have brats like mine!” or “Want my kids? Please take them!” or “At least you can sleep at night!” It really isn’t that funny of a joke to begin with, and it only serves to twist the knife further because you are acting ungrateful or unappreciative for the blessing that was denied to me. I’ve also heard the jokes (and even made them myself, but more as a way to break the tension) that go something like, “Well at least trying to make a kid is fun (wink wink)!” This is a little bit less hurtful of a joke, but can still bring bitter sensations to the infertile couple. Intimacy is nice, but when you are trying to get pregnant for months or years, it also has saddening notes to it. It doesn’t mean it becomes unenjoyable, but it carries its own stress and anxiety as well.

How Can I Help?

So what could someone say to a person who is grieving that would be helpful? This is what I’ve found works best for me in my own grief experience. Hug the person. Say “That sucks.” Say “I’m praying for you.” or “I’m here for you.” Then LISTEN. Perhaps the person grieving will want to share more. Perhaps they are looking for an opportunity to explain what they are feeling and what they are going through. Maybe at this time it hurts too much to talk about it, or they just don’t feel comfortable. I found that I was much more comfortable talking to some people about it than others.  If the person does not want to say more, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you, or don’t need you to comfort them. Just being there is often comfort enough. No advice will make the pain stop, no solutions you can offer will really make them feel better or fix their problems right now. No stories of other infertile couples, successful or not, will really change how they feel. Reassurances that it will all work out if they’re just patient don’t help. Just be there. Understand that it really does hurt, even if you have never experienced something similar yourself. You don’t have to experience the exact same pain to know that it hurts. I can look at someone with a chronic illness that I’ve never had myself and still know they feel cruddy and have a pretty horrible time of it right now.  

If you do feel the need to say more, wait until AFTER you’ve asked questions about their personal situation, and understand their specific circumstances better. At the same time, give them the option to not open up. By waiting to hear their story, you will avoid giving advice or saying something that maybe seems comforting to you, but is ultimately hurtful in their circumstances.  For example, I know that my issues are congenital and have tried certain treatments to counter them, but none have worked. To have someone suggest that I simply relax, or change my diet shows that they have no idea what my situation actually is, and think that there could be an easy fix, when I know there really isn’t. By waiting to hear my story, they might realize that the issues I’m dealing with are complex, and that I have already tried or am trying to find a solution.  In this way, they can understand my situation better, and avoid opening old wounds, or making it worse.

        Finally, please respect the choices made by the person grieving. If the person has decided to continue seeking treatments until every last option is explored, that is their business. If the person has decided that for the sake of their marriage, health, emotions, or finances, they are no longer going to seek to become a parent, and are going to accept that they will be childless for life, that is also their business. For me, the latter option was what we ended up going with. It doesn’t mean we’ve lost hope. Who knows, maybe a miracle will happen. It just means that we are no longer actively seeking to grow our family, and are working on coming to terms with that. This decision carries its own pain, as many things I was looking forward to and hoping for are now set aside. The future is uncertain. There is pressure to find a “higher calling” or to fill the time that would have been filled with kids with something more meaningful. I don’t know what my future holds, but it seems that a life with children is not one of the options. The decision was not made lightly. There are reasons it was made. Please don’t tell me I’m making the wrong choice, and that I should never give up or lose hope. Hope can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be very painful.  After years of building up hopes only to have them dashed again and again, I felt I just couldn’t do it anymore. Perhaps others are stronger than I am, because they continue trying for longer. I don’t know. I just know that my decision is mine to make, and not really anyone else’s. You may not agree with every choice, but please treat it with respect.

Conclusion

Grief is real. Grief is painful. Grief is diverse. Grief is very seldom understood until it is gone through personally. However, this does not mean that it should be ignored, avoided, or ridiculed. It is a part of life. It ought to be treated with compassion, love, and respect. The temptation may be strong to avoid someone who is going through something difficult, maybe out of fear that you will say the wrong thing, or because it feels very awkward. For the one who is grieving, those same fears are plaguing them. But this is precisely the moment they need a friend to come along and just be there for them.

This story about Winnie the Pooh a friend sent me sums up grief and the response of good friends to it perfectly:

It occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn’t heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore’s stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.

“Hello Eeyore,” said Pooh.

“Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet,” said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice.

“We just thought we’d check in on you,” said Piglet, “because we hadn’t heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay.”

Eeyore was silent for a moment. “Am I okay?” he asked, eventually. “Well, I don’t know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That’s what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. Which is why I haven’t bothered you. Because you wouldn’t want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now.”

Pooh looked at Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.

Eeyore looked at them in surprise. “What are you doing?”

“We’re sitting here with you,” said Pooh, “because we are your friends. And true friends don’t care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are.”

“Oh,” said Eeyore. “Oh.” And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.

Because Pooh and Piglet were There. No more; no less.