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What We Wish You Knew: Supporting Loved Ones in Infertility

3 Dec

Our infertility journey has persisted the better part of 3 years and in that time, we’ve been through a lot of stages ranging from anger, to ambivalence, to acceptance. In that time we’ve also encountered a lot of well meaning “advice” and “encouragement” from friends and family that very often, is more hurtful or confusing than helpful. These are thoughts I’ve gathered after speaking with a lot of infertile couples over the years and the sentiments toward the various quips tend to be pretty consistent. I want to share them here to better equip the friends and families of infertile couples to comfort and encourage them.

Fundamentally, this is a grief process.
The first thing that is tantamount to understanding the broken heart of an infertile couple is realizing that infertility is a loss and a death that needs to be grieved. It is often the loss of a lifelong dream. It is the loss of what could have been and for couples who choose not to pursue other methods, it is the loss of legacy of children, grandchildren and many many memories. In Christian couples especially, it can also be the death of what the grievers thought was either their or every married Christian’s purpose in Christendom. The church has been silent for too long on infertility and is both ill equipped and insufficiently motivated to minister to people who struggle with it. We place such a large emphasis on children and families in the American church and there is such an unspoken way things are done-you find a nice guy or gal, court, marry, have kids and live happily ever after. Sometimes an infertile couple can almost feel “lost” and alone in this big world that seems to overlook us (though we acknowledge it is inadvertently so).

Because this is a grieving process, there is no way to rush through, around or over it. Your patience and grace will be of unending value to the couple grieving. And just like every other grief process, it will cycle. There are stages of acceptance, anger, devastation, sadness, hope, loneliness, despair and ambivalence. There is no “getting over it” and it is a gut wrenching, emotionally consuming process that everyone goes through differently.

With that background, here are a few well-intentioned quips that are meant to be helpful, but are often times very painful. We all know in our heads that these are well intentioned, sincere, and borne out of a desire to help, but depending on where we are in our grief cycle, our hurt hearts can overrule our heads and we can lash out or bury that bur and carry it for a long time.

Not so helpful words of advice

Have you considered adoption? Without question, this is the most common thing said to us. I would wager a guess that any infertile couple you would encounter is aware of the existence of adoption without it being suggested. Some couples may get there, but the decision is a very personal, difficult one, and is not answered out of a desire to “replace” or “substitute” a biological child. There are a couple issues at play.

I have lost my dream of ever giving birth to a precious angel with my husband’s eyes and my grandma’s smile, and no child conceived of another will ever mend that ache. That particular part of my heart will never be full. Just as you would never say to a grieving spouse “Why don’t you just marry someone else?” the proposition to an infertile couple that they “just” adopt, is rarely helpful.

Unfortunately however, the world often portrays it that way. Many couples only turn to adoption after their biological road has ended and this is unfortunate but at the end of the day, I think most stable Americans should at least consider adoption because there are far more children in need of homes than there are parents willing to love them. I completely agree that not every couple is called to adopt, but that question should not be contingent on biological reproductive ability anyway. The bottom line is that the question could easily be asked of you (the fertile), “Why don’t you adopt?” and the question would be equally awkward, biology aside. The decision to adopt a child hinges on so much more than biological capacity or lack thereof.

Relax. It will happen when it happens. This is probably one of the most nonsensical approaches I’ve heard and unfortunately, it’s the second most common thing we hear. While it is true that stress may be a factor in some infertility cases, and it’s true that stress can compound any other problem, a large number of infertile couples suffer from true medical malfunctions that require treatment. Relaxing won’t cure cancer or the flu, and it won’t cure infertility.

Additionally, infertility often presents interpersonal challenges between the spouses and with their friends and family. They’re probably doing their very best to navigate the emotional waters as best they can while still keeping their relationship in tact. This journey is stressful, painful, and tiring. Telling them to “relax” is as futile as telling a two year old to sit still, or a grieving spouse to stop missing his beloved.

Lastly, telling a couple to relax implies that their infertility to that point has been their fault and if they would just keep their emotions in check and settle down, everything would be fine. Infertility is not earned or deserved though sometimes I confess that if I had a “reason” for having this cross to bear, it might make it a little easier.

My friend was infertile for years and now she has 5 children! God is good! This is a very touchy area and I encourage you to tread lightly. It is true that God is the great Physician and that He can heal any malady. It’s also true that for a lot of people, He does heal them. It is also true though that in a lot of cases, He doesn’t heal them, and He is still good.

These stories are meant to encourage and give hope and sometimes they do. I would just caution that sometimes all they do is make the sufferer grieve more, because it’s a painful reminder that God can heal and to this point, has chosen not to. That can be a very hard reality to accept, especially if He has chosen to hide His reason why or His alternate plan.

I have no advice or way for you to determine where your loved one is at (other than to ask her) but I would just encourage you to tread carefully here. Barren women (and men), I would also encourage you that if this is a particular area of struggle for you, be honest with your friends and family and ask them to refrain from sharing their “miracle” stories at this time.

There will come a day when we can again dream of miracles, it just might not be today.

“Let Go and Let God.” or “Give it to God. Trust Him.” This is also a double edged sword. On the one hand every Christian, every day, in every situation needs to deny himself and surrender to God. And universally it is true that there are some circumstances that are harder for us to surrender than others. We acknowledge that with our heads, and know that the person offering this words sincerely understands the daily struggle to “let go” in their own journey. On the other hand, it can come across as flippant, and again as placing the blame on the couple. “If you just trusted God more, you could have a child.” The reality of it is that the couple could be 100% successful in trusting God with this area of their life and His answer may still be “No” or “Not right now.”

Though perhaps once I get to that point of 100% acceptance and trust (I long for that day), perhaps such a thing wouldn’t be so upsetting. Who knows…

I understand. I experienced… I think this can be said of any uncomfortable situation. When we don’t know what to say, we often try to fill the void with our own experiences in an attempt to empathize. At the end of the day, the reality is that this just can’t be understood by someone who hasn’t been there. The grief and pain are so acute. And I imagine that any one else who has personally suffered some other life trauma would say the same thing about people who haven’t experienced their kind of pain. The best thing you can say is “I can’t imagine what you’re going through but know I love you and I want to support you.” Any attempts to compare your situation to theirs can be very frustrating and hurtful for the griever. Please understand, I’m sure your loved one loves you and wants to support you in your own place in life in whatever your trial may be, but not in the context of it being comparable or similar to this particular element of their own.

Conclusion
This may sound like a crabby, demanding list of dos and don’ts. I certainly hope it doesn’t sound like that. This is borne out of a sincere desire to better equip those who have expressed interest in learning how to better support their friends and family members currently experiencing infertility. It is the last desire of any couple I know to make their loved ones feel like they have to walk on egg shells so it is my hope that I haven’t created that expectation.

Please also know that if you are a dear loved one of mine (or anyone else’s) who has ever said any of these things, please do not fret. This is not designed to blame, condemn or judge anyone or question the sincerity of anyone who has been well intended in anything they have said. This is designed only to give you some alternate suggestions to consider the next time an opportunity to encourage someone comes along.

One of the very best things you can do for your loved ones is just walk and be with them during this time. Hug them, love them, cry with them, hold them, pray with and for them. Don’t try to “fix” or advise them. There will be a time for that, and at that time they will seek out advice and counsel, but the knowledge that they have your unconditional love will be invaluable.

We hate the random meltdowns at pregnancy announcements and baby showers as much as you do. We hate the struggles with jealousy and anger and resentment, too. And we pray fiercely that this will eventually be calmed in our hearts. But the knowledge that you love us through it all will be of more comfort than anything else you could say or do.

We also know that we don’t want you to be able to understand this grief first hand. I don’t know of any infertile couple who would wish this cross on anyone else. So in that regard, we are glad when our loved ones can’t or don’t understand because they have been spared this pain. But that doesn’t always make the loneliness that accompanies this journey any more bearable. Know that we love and appreciate you, and we appreciate your grace and patience as we do our best to show you that when our hearts are trying to get the better of us.

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