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.
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.
June 30, 2008 12:22 pm
Your article was beautiful, heartwarming, bittersweet, sad, happy, & just plain emotional. First let me express my condolences to you & your family on the loss of your sister (your niece and nephew’s mum). I can’t imagine what they must have been through losing her by the age of 10! I can’t imagine how the loss feels to you! I CAN imagine how difficult it must be that you niece and nephew don’t appear to live around the corner from you. (I’m basing that on something I previously read on your blog). I think you live in the U.S. & that means Ireland it quite a trip for you)! They must miss their mum terribly & must have been very happy to have a visit with you. I’m sure they have a special connection with you, based on what you’ve described. Your description of, “Each time I heard him [your nephew] 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” was very touching to me!
The “sister email” you posted within your Ireland article brought tears to my eyes. I will pass your Ireland article along to my local endometriosis support group. I also already have your blog website address listed on my blog. (My blog is for endo and we talk about infertility within it). I have a woman in my endo support group who has experienced secondary infertility due to endometriosis who has a sister with endo who has infertility and cannot conceive at all. I know your article will ring true to her simply on the “sister letter” alone). I agree that the sister who wrote you was a great sister to ask the questions she did! She obviously loves her sister very much! Your suggestions to the sister who emailed you were fantastic! I know so many wonderful people (men & women alike) who don’t know how to handle the topic of infertility. They don’t know what to say/not say. They don’t know what to do/not do.
I have 2 sisters, neither of which has been diagnosed with endo; I have endo myself. My mother’s endo was discovered at the time of a hysterectomy she had in her early 40s. I am 39 and have fought for years against people trying to talk me into a hysterectomy. (My symptoms are severe but I don’t want a hysterectomy).
As you touched on, the best response to an infertile patient depends so much on that person’s personality and perspective; it’s complicated! There is no canned answer for that.
I am so happy for you & your family that you got that 1:1 time with your niece and nephew! That is wonderful!! I’m sure you gave them great comfort during your visit. Pamela Jeanne, I love the way you word things! I love that I have 3000 characters to respond to such a remarkable post! (Many blogs are limited to 200 including my blog, I think). You can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d LOVE if you’d consider guest blogging on infertility! Thank you for a fantastic post!
June 30, 2008 4:02 pm
Hi. This post is exactly why I’ve been reading your blog for a long while now. I am 30 with a new baby and my sister is 41 and has been ttc for a few years now. I wanted to understand more about what she has been going through, without pushing her into a discussion that could be too painful for her.
Several months back, I sent our mom links to the RESOLVE website as well as stirrup queens so she would have some insight into the issue and not say anything like, “why not just adopt?”
I’m not sure I’ve been the perfect sister, but I’m trying really hard.
June 30, 2008 10:29 pm
First of this is the first time I’ve read any of your posts. What an inspiration you are. I believe we are all here to be angels for others in need. We should help whenever we see the opportunity. By doing this we leave the world at some point in the future, much better than when we arrived.
July 1, 2008 2:52 am
It is the littlest things that help people through mourning. Whatever someone is mourning – fertility, loss, death, loss of identity – whatever it is, it is the smallest deed that helps the most.
People usually don’t want words of encouragement so much as a simple sympathetic ear with someone who is actually listening. Stop yourself from going past, “I’m sorry,” or “I wish I could take away the pain,” or “It just sucks,” when it is still very fresh. As time goes by, the person will give you cues to what they want to talk about. There are good books on Active Listening that can help you learn to listen and say the things that your sister / friend / spouse needs you to say when appropriate. It doesn’t always work, but it is a great start.
Infertility and loss are pains that don’t go away any more than the pain that comes from the death of a loved one. As time goes by, it dulls, but it doesn’t disappear. Even for the lucky ones who have success, the pain is still there under the surface. (I sometimes think that is why some turn into Momzillas after success – to compensate for that awful pain.)
It is never easy to be the needed shoulder. You will make faux pas and it will hurt – both of you – but, your efforts will be appreciated. Good Luck.
July 1, 2008 7:51 am
I really liked MLO’s comment that maybe your sister just needs a sympathetic ear someone to agree that this sucks. I know that it is comforting to just complain with another person.
July 1, 2008 10:32 am
I have several acquaintances who presume that, because they have read a magazine article on infertility, or know someone at work who has had IVF, they somehow understand what I am going through. They don’t ask whether or not I feel comfortable discussing my intimate medical history with them, and rush in with unsolicited and inappropriate advice.
But I also have friends who simply say, ‘I’m so sorry. It must be incredibly difficult for you. I’m here for you if you want to talk about it.’ These are the people to whom I feel I can turn. They do not presume to know what I’m feeling, or attempt to come up with easy solutions or platitudes.
When we see someone in pain, our natural instinct is to want to take that pain away, to make it all better. But sometimes we have to accept that there is nothing that we can say or do that will minimise that person’s hurt. Sometimes all we can do is simply sit quietly with them.
July 2, 2008 2:02 pm
And adding onto PJ’s last paragraph:
Parents, try to make sure that the kid time you’re offering your childless relatives is QUALITY time. Don’t just forward a soccer schedule every season and a birthday party invite once a year. That’s relegating them to the sidelines, literally as well as figuratively. Think about your relative’s interests and see if you can merge them with those of your child. Your childless brother might be the perfect one to take the kids to a festival at the park or zoo. And I loved it when my SIL invited me to come to a nephew’s kindergarten play or help out at his classroom Halloween party. Give them the chance to be the fun uncle or the fun aunt and create special memories for all. Trust them to know how to look after your child for that short time.
July 5, 2008 12:14 am
how sad to witness a child experience that void in his/her life. I’m sure your heart aches for them. I’m happy you can get to be that special aunt. (was he completely surprised when you arrived?!)
you’ve given some wonderful advice to the query, as always.
July 5, 2008 1:00 am
I don’t think saying “this sucks” is a bad thing. I think its true. And there isn’t much else to say. It sucks. Frankly its a lesson I’ve learned from IF. Its so hard for anyone to understand anyone else’s pain about anything – whatever it is. There’s a lot of empathy and no judgment in ‘that sucks”
July 6, 2008 7:54 am
Your advice is great. No-one should underestimate the power of listening and nodding. Don’t spend time talking about how bad *you* feel for the person – spend that time talking about how *the person* feels. And don’t be possessive of your own children – let them share the experience of parenthood as much as they want.
July 15, 2008 10:22 am
I don’t really have any words right now. I read. I appreciated. I commiserated. I bookmarked.
I’m a bit overwhelmed, but I’ll be back. Or maybe I’ll finally stop being a coward and actually say something on my blog. I know my ex (who broke up with me over this issue, for lack of a better explanation) reads my blog, and I’ve been afraid of “offending” him. But screw him. It’s my blog. And there’s no greater offense than his breaking up with me over this.