I have my fertility center’s phone number memorized. I know all of the extensions by heart before the recorded voice prompts me to “Press 2 if you are an IVF patient” and “Press 3 if you need to schedule an appointment.” (I’ve made it a habit to try to press the extension I need before I have to hear the familiar menu of options.) I know all of the doctors by name, I know which ultrasound techs are there on which days, I know which consult rooms have which paintings, and I could even tell you with near certainty how many fish are in the fish tank in the waiting room.
Over the years, the fertility center I go to has become a second home I never desired to have. My own infertility journey has been long and arduous – a painful journey I never envisioned I would be on. A journey no one endures by choice, one with no guaranteed destination, timeline, or end date.
Any who find they are on their own infertility journey may agree that it’s one where hope and grief coexist, each outweighing the other at different points along the way. And while hope is often what keeps us going, grief is a thread that links many parts of the journey together. On my lowest days, hope feels out of reach, inauthentic, a thing to say I have to avoid sounding pessimistic. On these days, grief enters with ease. And even on the days hope soars, grief remains its companion.
Infertility and Grief
One way I have heard many describe their experiences with infertility is through many layers of grief. Infertility isn’t a one-time-diagnosis, follow-the-treatment-plan, and now-you’re-fixed kind of journey for many of us. It’s not one where you grieve for a while and then move on; the grief tends to shows up over and over again – in complex and often unexpected ways.
We peel back one layer of grief, only to discover another.
Full disclosure: Much of this is– as you may have already gathered – informed by my own experience. I say this plainly because I believe the pain, grief, and complexity of infertility are the kinds of things that cannot be fully understood unless experienced. And as I often say, my own examples and anecdotes are not intended to be a representation of all who have struggled, do, or will struggle with infertility.
I do, however, hope that if you or someone you love has experienced infertility, you feel seen in what follows. I hope that, rather than the toxic positivity that may make you feel that you need to stifle your feelings, you find authenticity and maybe even a point of connection that validates your own experiences with infertility grief.
Layers of Grief You May Experience When Struggling With Infertility
1. Diagnosis Grief
If there is a diagnosable reason for your infertility, finding this out can initially be overwhelming, upsetting, intimidating. Then, when the overwhelm and shock wears off, grief may set in. Maybe it was easy for your friends or siblings to get and stay pregnant, so you never imagined the journey would bring anything but joy and growth, but now there is a known barrier that threatens to upend your dreams of having a (or another) child.
2. Grieving the family you desperately want but don’t have
I still, at times, grieve the idealistic visions I had for my family before I ever imagined infertility would be part of my story: several children close in age so they could grow up as friends, go to school together, and maybe even be on the same sports teams. I imagined kids playing outside together, family movie nights where the little ones “fought” over which movie we would watch, and enjoying the infant phase a little more the second time around because I had done it once before. Grieving the family you had once envisioned can be painful. And it can be the kind of grief that shows up in different ways at points in your journey.
3. Grieving the idea of a sibling for your child
For those who experience secondary infertility, the desire to have a child often goes beyond your own. You begin to desire a sibling for the child(ren) you do have. I feel like this grief has come in parts for me: grieving a sibling my daughter could go to school with, grieving a playmate, grieving the fact that she may never have a sibling after all. Thinking of ways to respond when she asks for a brother or sister, and watching her learn to do things alone or with me that I had always hoped she would get to do with a sibling.
4. Grieving the ability to imagine a future beyond “trying”
It’s hard for me to relate to my friends and acquaintances who are decidedly done having kids, happy about it, and excited for the “next phase of life.” Part of infertility may be wondering if you will ever feel like you are at a point where you get to decide you are done, or if you will get to a point where you feel it is simply time for you to stop trying. The uncertainty about if or when you will have a/another biological child can keep you stuck in that moment, in that phase of life, unable to imagine what it may feel like to move into another phase of life with contentment.
5. Grieving who you were before infertility
When facing infertility, there are times where it takes every ounce of energy to physically show up to the places you need to be, let alone infuse energy and excitement into conversations and experiences. Maybe you used to find peace and comfort in little things like walks outside, meeting up with a friend, going to a coffee shop to read, or in bigger things like holiday gatherings and vacations. Maybe you used to pursue passions and hobbies, and now you feel like you have lost some of your zest for all of these things that once brought you joy. You used to be generally happy, optimistic, hopeful, and now you feel like a shell of your former self, watching as parts of life happen, but never really feeling like you are experiencing them.
You want to engage in life the way you did before infertility was a part of it, but you just can’t. Grieving the “pre-infertility” version of you is normal; it’s understandable to desire a happier, more present version of ourselves. You are on a daunting journey that has adjusted the way you experience life for now, and the version of you who shows up in your life today is enough.
6. Grieving a (or recurrent) Pregnancy Loss(es)
This can take (and for me, has taken) many forms: A faint positive pregnancy test that gets lighter over the course of a few days. Your doctor confirms this was likely a chemical pregnancy. A (very kind) phlebotomist (who you know by name) looking at you with eagerness and hope while saying, “fingers crossed that this is it for you” when he tapes the gauze on your arm after – yet another – blood draw to check hCG levels. Waking up at exactly 6am because you know that’s when the blood test results will be in your online chart, only to see that your hCG levels are dropping. A few seemingly promising early ultrasounds that tragically end in a heartbeat that stops and the loss that follows.
Losing children followed by the desire to keep trying to have one is one of the most excruciating experiences I have ever endured. And to experience much of this while you may still have to work, show up for other commitments, be present in relationships, and participate in other life events can feel (and be) impossible. I’ve not yet come across a word that encompasses the pain associated with this kind of loss. And if you share any of these experiences, I wish I could give you a hug. I wish I could hear your story, or sit in silence if you would rather.
7. Grieving a Loss of Connection with Others
Infertility is lonely. Even if and when you have a support system. Wonderful support systems don’t take away the ache to grow your family; they don’t inherently improve the circumstances you are in. And if you are on your own infertility journey, you may have points along the way where it feels more exhausting to explain “where you are at” in the process than it does to keep it to yourself. You want support, but you don’t have the energy or the desire to reach out to people to fill them in. Or, when you do share, you may receive a myriad of responses, some of which are not only unhelpful, but may actually feel upsetting or harmful.
All of this may leave you feeling alone, desperate for connection, but seemingly unable to find or sustain one. This is entirely valid. Your need and desire for connection may change by the day (or hour even) when you are struggling with infertility; notice your needs and desires, and respond in a way that honors these – even if they change on a daily basis.
Navigating Grief and Seeking Support Throughout Your Infertility Journey
If you have experienced one, some, or all of these (and more) layers of grief that can come with infertility, first of all, I am so sorry you are going through (or have gone through) this. Please know that it is more than okay to feel the way you are feeling. There is no shame in any of the emotions that accompany this journey. Your grief is real, and you should have a space to experience it. And if you are still in the midst of an infertility journey, you are worthy of the dreams you have for yourself, your family, and your future.
You Don’t Have To Go Through This Alone
You may be at a point where you feel like you would like to process your grief or other aspects of your infertility journey with a professional. If so, seeking and finding a therapist with whom you feel comfortable sharing could be a life-giving step for you in processing the grief you experience with infertility. It can be validating to have a sacred space where you feel seen, heard, and understood. This may come through a local infertility support group, too – virtually or in-person – if that is something you may find to be helpful.
I know all too well that there are not perfect words or maybe any words that touch the grief that accompanies an infertility journey. But I hope you know that you – or your loved one – deserve(s) a whole lot of support, empathy, and grace throughout this journey. So, here’s to the days ahead where you hopefully feel validated and loved through your infertility journey, where you connect with those who have had similar experiences, and where you feel slivers of hope and support that move you through the layers of grief you are experiencing. And to a future where we can one day forget the number of fish in the waiting room’s fish tank.
By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC
All images via Unsplash
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