We can never take away someone else’s pain, but we can certainly help to dull the edges. Now visiting my niece and nephew in Ireland, I see just how hard it is to want for a soft touch and cuddle — from the other side. My niece and nephew and I are in many ways two sides of a coin. I feel a special closeness to them for knowing how hard it is to be reminded of a loss in the most ordinary of ways.
As I wrote before heading to Ireland last December my nephew and niece lost their mum (my sister-in-law) to cancer before they had reached the age of 10. Now 12 and eight and half, they have no choice but to push through and carry on all the while bearing a heavy weight on their little shoulders. I look into their sweet faces and try to read their expressions, their thoughts as we go about the business of living. I see the world through their eyes — how they are are reminded of their mother’s loss in little and big ways every day. When their friend’s mums drop and pick them up from school, when they visit grocery stores, libraries, or the park, the void is hard to ignore.
On my nephew’s birthday, I had to fight back tears imagining how badly he wanted to share it with the woman who once sang him lullabies, made his favorite cookies and cheered him on in his soccer.
I gave him extra hugs and fussed over him along with his father and his Irish grandmother and aunt (who live just miles away and keep an eye out and a loving hand at the ready). Each time I heard him laugh or watched his face light up with joy at getting what only a 12-year-old boy could treasure it made me appreciate how important we all are in making one another’s hurt go away, if only for a little while.
That leads me to this question posed to me recently in email:
I recently found out that my older sister, who just turned 30,
has endured early stages of menopause and is now coping with her own
infertility. We have just started talking about it, but her pain is
still fresh and it truly hurts me when I see her get teary eyed when we
talk about it. I feel completely helpless when it comes to what she is
going through. I read the article about “How to be a Good Friend to an
Infertile,” but I really want to know how to be a good sister. I don’t
want to push her to talk about it, but I also don’t want to feel like
she is alone. Do you know of any good resources that would help me
understand how to approach the subject? I don’t want you to feel like
I am asking too much of you. Any advice or direction you could provide
would be very appreciated. Thank you so much for your time and I look
forward to hearing from you.
First, you’re a wonderful sister. Your question is not an easy one to answer as we’re all a little different in how we cope. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying to work through my own infertility it is this: when one can’t find the right words, it is often the little things that are done that can say and help so much.
Be there to listen. Anticipate where the pangs of childlessness may lie. Be careful not to minimize her response or feelings. Understand how an infertile relative might feel isolated. Offer to let her initiate or guide the conversation where pregnancy and children are concerned. Step in diplomatically when you see someone else make a gaffe. Give her room not to participate. Look out for when she may be masking sadness…and gently see if she’d like to talk. Know that there will be many tears and difficulty in articulating how and why the hurt is so pervasive.
I was never more grateful to my sister’s-in-law who had their own children than when they were generous in sharing their children and their special times — without pressure to participate. They made me feel special as a treasured aunt, important in their children’s lives. They allowed me 1:1 time with my nieces and nephews when I craved it. As always, I welcome the examples and perspective of my readers. Please share your thoughts.