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?”
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.”
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.