Thrashing Out New Answers


griefAs I make my way through what has begun to feel like “grief central” a new set of thoughts and questions is surfacing.

Why does the grief from infertility feel so substantially different from when I lost my grandmother, or more recently, my sister in law? I loved them. I miss them. I wonder how my life might be different if they were still here. When I think back to my SIL’s passing, I was the beneficiary of an outpouring of support and kindness that far exceeded what I expected. I was genuinely touched by the concern and condolences of friends and business acquaintances alike.

I had a very different experience with the losses associated with my infertility treatments. I will admit I did not widely advertise our extraordinary efforts to conceive or the failed outcomes. I can’t expect people to be mind-readers, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to observe that we were a couple in love who talked, if only tentatively, about becoming parents one day. There were few outside of a small circle of friends who knew of our devastation. Our grieving was private.

And yet, since that time I have had ample opportunity to observe, like an anthropologist, how people respond broadly to infertility and its treatment – both in my professional world and society at large. Most view infertility treatment, at best, as little more than an expensive and self-indulgent gamble. They assess it no differently than a Super Bowl poll – did the couple win or lose? If they lost, the sentiment is typically, “Well, better luck next time. Hey, there’s this great new restaurant that serves tapas. Have you heard about it?”

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At worst they cluck their tongues in pity and offer empty platitudes about how “these things happen for a reason.” They don’t. Most infertility, or what contributes to it, is not well understood. The treatment outcomes vary dramatically. Successful conception and delivery is random and that’s why it’s hard to accept the losses when they come – all too frequently.

When there’s conventional death, the support comes like a warm blanket to shield and comfort those reeling from the experience. The grieving individual can recover amid the understanding that their loss is acknowledged and respected. I never fully appreciated how much that acknowledgment and respect mattered until recently.

In thrashing about to make sense of the lingering feelings of grief, the loss and sadness resulting from infertility, I’m also reminded of a reader comment some months back. In the wake of her unsuccessful efforts to conceive the last thing she wanted was pity:

“I am sure that most people believe we have ‘moved on,’ and sometimes I can even believe that myself, but then something will happen to remind me that the shadow of infertility still looms large in my life, and probably always will. I have often said this – I hate, absolutely hate, knowing that people feel sorry for me because we don’t have kids. I hate being the object of pity. I want them to know that we’re OK, the world didn’t come to an end, I’m not about to throw myself off a cliff, etc. But at the same time, just because I’m not standing at the cliff’s edge, I don’t want them thinking that our life is peachy keen either, and that we don’t keenly feel the absence of a child in our life, every single day.”

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I couldn’t agree more.

Can you imagine, following my SIL’s death, someone saying to me that a 43-year-old mother of two died for a reason? Or instead of offering words of support about her illness implied that she was somehow responsible? Or instructing my brother in law to “get over it” and start dating? We’d all react in horror.

I see now how much my grieving has been disrupted by anger and resentment. How could it not? It’s not easy to grieve amid an environment of misguided pity or careless marginalizing. My challenge now is to channel the anger, to look beyond the all-too-often small-minded ignorance that many have about infertility so that my grieving can continue in a healthy way.


21 Responses

  1. luna

    January 23, 2008 7:13 am

    you are so right. well said, PJ. and I’m so sorry for the loss of your SIL and grandmother. I imagine your role as an aunt will be even more significant.

    grieving the loss of our fertility is such a personal, usually private process, as you said. and infertility in our child-bearing years is random and misunderstood.

    but everyone dies, everyone loses their parents and grandparents. these types of losses are more familiar and common along with the public outpouring of support. it’s like a rite of passage. and when a young mother or father or child dies, there’s the added shock, tragedy and unfairness of the loss that tends to attract even more support.

    I hate feeling pitied because I have no children, because we keep trying and failing, because we’re getting older and losing our chance, because people think they have to walk on eggshells around me. I’ll keep saying it, being pitied only makes me feel worse, but a little compassion could go a long way.

    another lovely post. ~luna (also on the grief train…)

  2. From B

    January 23, 2008 7:29 am

    Can you imagine, following my SIL’s death, someone saying to me that a 43-year-old mother of two died for a reason? Or instead of offering words of support about her illness implied that she was somehow responsible? Or instructing my brother in law to “get over it” and start dating? We’d all react in horror.

    Sadly. my husband and I heard the equivalent of these things when our daughter died. “She’s in a better place” (Hello!!!! What better place is there for a baby then in her mummy’s arms) “You’re young” (ie. get back on the horse) “You’re strong” (so…. that makes it OK then does it?) “It’s better this way” etc, etc People always say some dumb things because they have no flippin’ idea what to say. And because they are easily distracted by tapas. Engaging with a pain you don’t understand is frankly a very hard thing to do.

    But…… in saying that. The ongoing nature of infertility makes it a hard grief to come to terms with. It’s a wound that keeps getting bumped. And people don’t recognise its weight in the same way. And also there is a lack of ritual, and I have a very strong belief in the importance of ritual in healing. No funeral or memorial for people to rally round and support you.

    Maybe that is a thing to think about……. developing a ritual that you and your husband and friends can participate in together to recognise the grief of not having children in your life.

  3. loribeth

    January 23, 2008 1:57 pm

    Re: different kinds of grief for different kinds of losses — you had your grandmother & SIL for many years… others knew them too, & can share their memories & feelings of loss with you. Infertility & pregnancy loss are more hidden, much more personal and private. It’s the loss of possibility & potential, it’s the loss of a dream for the future (which most other people just take for granted will be theirs). Which is not to excuse people from lacking empathy & tactfulness.

    All my life, I’ve had plans & I knew that if I worked hard & did the right things, everything would turn out OK. This is the one thing in my life that did not turn out as planned, & that’s a hard pill to swallow. And it’s hard to turn your back on the plans & dreams you’ve had your whole life, and start traveling down a different path.

    I’m willing to bet nobody told your brother-in-law in the early days of his grief, “You can always get another wife” — but people think nothing of telling parents who just lost a baby that they can always have another one. (Which, if they’ve struggled with infertility, may not always be possible, either.)

    (Was that my reader comment?? lol If it wasn’t, it sure sounds like something I’ve said a million times over.)

  4. peesticksandstones

    January 23, 2008 2:02 pm

    So well-said. Loved the tapas restaurant part — that is so right on. Definitely captures how I’ve been feeling lately, but haven’t quite been able to put into words. Thank you!

  5. Rebeccah

    January 23, 2008 3:03 pm

    I think you’re really onto something, albeit something deeply painful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I suspect a lot of us go through similar processes and aren’t able to articulate it as clearly. Your last two paragraphs really hit a chord with me.

  6. Lori

    January 23, 2008 4:03 pm

    May I join you in Armchair Anthropology?

    Maybe one of the reasons people don’t know how to treat a person grieving IF loss as well as they do other loss is the abstractness. Your SIL is a concrete idea, easily grasped; your dreams for a family is not. People have a framework to respond to the former, but unless you have experienced it yourself, you may not have the ability to empathize with the latter.

    Which may EXPLAIN thoughtless comments but not EXCUSE them.

  7. Kami

    January 23, 2008 4:35 pm

    This is absolutely true. I also agree with a couple of previous posters that people don’t know how to respond to a dead baby. I got condolences for about a week and then it was all forgotten. I also heard, “Maybe this is good for you, it will make you more humble.” and “You will get pregnant again” and “Why are you so sad?”

    People also don’t understand how it is a journey made so much harder because it is normally so easy for everyone else. About half the pregnancies in the US are unplanned. It’s like the rules of the universe working differently for people with infertility. It would be like a fertile person waking up to a world where new jobs / cars / vacations just showed up one morning for virtually everyone else, but the fertile person still lived in the universe that required hard work, commitment and savings to get it.

  8. Carlynn

    January 23, 2008 5:18 pm

    I so agree with your reader comment that the last thing I want is pity, it’s what I dread seeing in people’s eyes, but at the same time I want some recognition of the loss infertility brings.

    When I lost my last pregnancy and received such an unexpected flood of emails, it helped me so much just to receive that recognition of the disappearance of something precious. I think this is underestimated, how important recognition of pain is to grieving. As always you express something I have felt but not known how to put into words. I wish you luck moving past the anger and hopefully it will give me the role model I need to do the same.

  9. Schatzi

    January 23, 2008 5:51 pm

    Well put… as always.

    The mother of one of my closest friends died a few days ago. Predictably, we are closing ranks and doing whatever we can to shore her up at this time. I have been aware, though, that if these treatments fail, our grieving will be much more private… and much less socially acceptable.

  10. crockpot lady steph

    January 23, 2008 7:48 pm

    I’m horrified that you have heard such heartless things.
    What happened to empathy and humans helping and caring for humans?
    Common decency should not be asked for–it should be expected at all times.

  11. Summer

    January 23, 2008 8:05 pm

    The absolutely last thing that I want is pity. And the first and foremost thing I want from others? Validation of my grief and loss. But, like you said while that validation is plentiful when you lose a grandmother or SIL or some other family member, somehow it is missing when it comes to not being able to have children.

  12. Deathstar

    January 24, 2008 4:41 am

    After the dreaded phone call to confirm the negative result, there’s the silence. I sit back and remember when my hubby would whisper to my tummy, and I  would remember all our hard work and diligence and prayer were for nothing. Not too many Hallmark cards for that event. You don’t get a few days off of work, you just get phone calls saying, “Well….”

    Great post,thanks.

  13. Bea

    January 24, 2008 8:54 am

    I sometimes think that Jester’s loss was easier to deal with than the chemical pregnancies/failed cycles for this reason. I had ultrasound pictures. We knew he was a boy. That made the loss real to people other than, well, me. Even Mr Bea hadn’t really “felt” those earlier losses. And the extra support made things easier.

    And in other ways, the lack of support from some quarters stung all the more.


  14. motherofnone

    January 25, 2008 12:39 am

    I particularly like what you say here about that line, “Everything happens for a reason.” I have heard that countless times, probably even said it a few times myself with respect to my own infertility. Perhaps I was thinking that in some cosmic sense I wasn’t supposed to be a mom, or maybe deep down, didn’t really want to be. But you’re closer to the mark, I think, when you say infertility doesn’t happen “for a reason.” I was deemed a very good risk in the early days of my treatment. “We’ll get you knocked up,” said the Nurse Practitioner, exuberantly, to my then-30 year old self. I was healthy, all my tests were normal. Seven tortured years later, I’m still healthy, but no baby. Self-recrimination, guilt, suffering and being broke is all I have to show for seven years of IF treatment. I watch my friends pursue their hectic lives full of all things family and children. They seem proud, even boastful of their bodies’ ability to produce offspring. I marvel at the inequity of it all. “How can they seem so smug,” I wonder, like people proud of not having cancer or not being born blind. That’s really what it is, a random and capricious “honor,” being infertile. One of life’s biggest milestones, giving birth to one’s own children, just out of reach like a piece of paper blowing down the street.

  15. Ellen K

    January 25, 2008 1:42 pm

    I definitely agree that many people view IVF treatments as rather self-indulgent. It doesn’t help that the media typically overinflates the price of an IVF cycle and that many adoption stories begin with “The couple tried IVF 4 times before deciding to pursue adoption,” followed by the exhausted couple’s own negative remark about fertility treatments.

  16. Ellen K

    January 25, 2008 1:48 pm

    I hit “submit” a minute too soon. I was going to add that the inability of others to “hear” the childless-after-infertility voices (i.e., hardly any media mentions, just a paragraph here or there in a book about IF) is another difficulty. If no one is listening, we need to speak up or be silenced. I’m glad you have such a strong voice!

  17. Ann

    January 25, 2008 10:19 pm

    Yes, I must admit that we received much more support from people after our loss than we did while we were struggling to conceive. It’s like our loss was easier for people to grasp than the loss of something we never had. In a weird way, it’s sort of easier to deal with people after Zach died than it was when we were trying to explain how difficult our journey had been. I wonder if society will ever recognize infertility as a legitimate grief process.

  18. Rachel

    January 26, 2008 3:45 am

    Isn’t anger the 2nd step in grieving? I think first comes denial, then anger, later acceptance, can’t remember the order. Anyway, it’s 100% appropriate. When I think of the 11 tries you made… how could you not have built up truckloads of anger along the way? Especially as I think you have been more exposed to all the digs and ignorant comments, intended or not, as well. The little remarks rub me the wrong way too. The level of ignorance is amazing. Most of the time, I pity these people’s ignorance. Even the donor coordinators I spoke with this week made me feel like a) an emotionally fragile infertile wreck (um, no); or b) a damaged, less-than-whole woman. Anyway, only sometimes does it make me feel the object of pity. It just all goes back to what I’ve already dealt with in my life (sorry to repeat myself.) But I think if you can recognize anger as opposed to feeling it… you are well on your way in the process. A hug to you on this rainy, rainy night… ; )

  19. admin

    January 26, 2008 4:05 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this amazing articulation of the grief of infertility. Through my two losses I have tried, repeatedly, to explain to my fertile friends the nature of IF and m/c grief- how it is different from the loss of a friend or family member. In particular, people have a hard time grasping onto the cyclical nature of IF and m/c grief. The make assumptions about your recovery and are bewildered when your grief raises its ugly head over and over.
    Your writing has repeatedly provided me with the words I have such a hard time finding. So thank you.

  20. Sara

    January 29, 2008 10:34 pm

    P.J. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this all to important and over looked subject. When we loose family members such as grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc- the outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike is amazing- but when we are mourning the loss of our fertility- be it a m/c, stillbirth or failed IVF we are looked at by these same people so much differently- the grief that we have experienced should last only a few days if even that long- as admin said ‘they make assumptions about your recovery and are bewildered when your grief raises its ugly head over and over.’

    People except you to continue to grieve when you loose a loved one that was here for a period of time- someone that could be touched and seen by others- what they don’t understand was that a baby no matter the gestation filled our hearts with hopes and dreams that will never be seen- hopes and dreams that were ripped away from us- these are what we are also mourning- not just the physical loss- but the loss of what we will never have- never hold- hopes and dreams that have been forever destroyed- fertiles just don’t get that.

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