How to Begin to Heal from Infertility: Coping With Grief

I have been a licensed clinical social worker for 35 years and have found myself always interested in how people experience and cope with loss and grief. I have helped people deal with many different losses on a professional level. I personally have experienced the death of my mother, several dear friends, many close relatives, and had 2 miscarriages on my own infertility journey. It is a universal emotion that hits hard and we all cope with it in different ways.

By definition infertility brings with it feelings of loss, grief, and sadness. It forces us to face the possibility of losing our dreams of becoming a parent and sharing it with our partners. Infertility can bring the painful experience of physically losing a child and the grief associated with that. In this fragile state when our mind tells us "there is no hope" our body and emotions respond accordingly. Sometimes we find out why we are unable to conceive a child and sometimes the reason for our infertility remains undiagnosed which brings its own unique pain and sadness. When a loss happens you want to find an explanation to help begin to comprehend why so you can try to begin to heal. When you are unable to have a diagnosis it adds levels of confusion and anger making it more challenging to begin to take the next step. If you are adopting a child you may have had the experience of waiting a long time or not being chosen by a birth mother on one or more occasions.

We all experience grief in different ways. It can wash over us in waves. For many the intensity of grief changes with time. Some find it hard to imagine moving forward with your life. Grief can unexpectedly be triggered by seeing a pregnant woman, a baby, or hearing something that is said by someone else that triggers a memory.

Men and women tend to grieve differently. Women are more apt to discuss their feelings and be more open with their emotions. Men tend to internalize their grief. This can cause conflict and stress between couples because the differences in the way grief is expressed and experienced may be misinterpreted as lack of support and an inability to empathize. Couples need to try to understand the different ways they experience grief does not signal one is in "more or less pain."

There are some things you can do to help begin to understand and address your grief:

  • The identified stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Dr. Kubler Ross outlined this process in detail. We now know that these stages do not necessarily occur in a particular order and can be repeated as you process your grief.
  • There is not a specific time frame associated with grief. Don't create expectations for yourself regarding this process.
  • If you find that after an extended period of time of months that you are not able to eat, sleep, or you are often tearful, isolative, and unable to function at school or work, think about seeing a counselor who specializes in working with loss or grief. You can also try to find a therapist in your area who specializes in family building.
  • If it becomes apparent that you and your partner are grieving in different ways and it is a source of conflict, consider seeking counseling to help you both get support and ideas about how to communicate and offer mutual support.
  • Many people find comfort in creating a ceremony or way to say goodbye to the child you hoped would be yours someday. Examples include writing a poem or letter to this child, planting a tree or flower, or designating a special place that brings you comfort and peace. Think about what would be meaningful to you. I have heard about churches that offer ceremonies for those that have lost a child where people come together to place a paper leaf with a message on a tree. Being with others who have experienced this type of loss can offer a measure of comfort so you know you are not alone. I wrote a letter to my unborn child explaining what my child meant to me and imagining what our future together would have been. I have returned to read it over the years and it does bring me comfort.
  • When I worked with people who had lost a child through Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) I would offer them a chance to keep a lock of hair and take a photograph of their child. Creating a place where you have things that are meaningful like these, a piece of clothing, a toy, can be very important for you. It is a special place to meditate, pray, or just allow yourself to reflect in a quiet, safe place. These items may eventually bring a degree of comfort and begin to help you in your healing.
  • Sometimes physical exercise like walking, biking, hiking, or yoga can be useful tools in working through emotions associated with grief.
  • Identify special talents you might have for example painting and incorporate these skills and significant aspects of yourself in your healing process. Using skills that are familiar and that you are confident in can help you initiate this difficult journey.
  • Identify a network of trusted friends and family that offer you strength and unconditional support so you can continue to rely on them in the days ahead.

Grief is the cruelest of companions. There is no "one size fits all prescription" that works for everybody as you move thru this painful landscape. You must be patient with yourself. Give yourself permission to take one day and one tiny step as best you can. Don't chastise yourself if the next day is a tough one. There will be people and techniques you use along the way that can aid you and offer some relief. Sometimes people surprise themselves by finding an inner strength that they were not aware they ever had. I hope eventually you find some kind of peace on this most challenging of journeys.

Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW, has a Master's Degree in Social Work and has been a licensed clinical social worker for over 30 years. She has done workshops, individual, and group counseling with people experiencing infertility. Ms. Waichler is the author of Riding the Infertility Roller Coaster: A Guide to Educate and Inspire. She currently writes freelance infertility and health related articles.

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