There are numerous examples of what NOT to say to someone who is dealing with infertility. What can be more difficult is to describe what TO say or do when someone you love is going through the experience.
The most appropriate and comforting response I have received came from my younger sister, Katie. We were conversing on the phone one night, and the topic glided over to my problems with conceiving. My husband and I had been going to a fertility clinic. We had been trying for a while, but to no avail. Due to my age, IVF was the most logical next step, but not an option for us.
With a lump in my throat, I told my sister that I had reached a point where I felt like I now had to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to have children. I needed to start grieving. There was silence on the end of the phone. For a moment, I was annoyed, thinking that Katie didn’t want to talk about the subject. But then I heard it.
She was crying. Not weepy, soft tears, but sobs.
I was taken aback, not anticipating this response. I really didn’t know what to say. So I asked a dumb question, that I already knew the answer to.
“Why are you crying?”
Between sobs, she said, “Because, Peggy, that’s so sad for you. And sad for all of us. I was imagining having a niece or nephew from my big sister. I’m so sorry. It’s just not fair.”
And then she cried some more.
A sense of calm came over me. We talked a bit more about it, but there wasn’t a whole lot to say. I was stunned by how much better I felt after the interaction. I tried to figure out why, and came up with this:
She didn’t come back at me with advice on how to get pregnant. She didn’t try to fix it. She didn’t point out all the positives in NOT having children. She didn’t say, “Just adopt.” She didn’t tell me to be grateful for the things I already had.
Katie did not say that perhaps I didn’t want to be a mom badly enough, because if so, I would “just” do IVF. She didn’t imply that I had less right to grieve because I wasn’t trying every medical intervention available. She didn’t tell me I was already a “mother” to so many (it sounds nice, but it is NOT the same). And most importantly, she didn’t change the subject.
What she did do was profoundly different than all of those things listed above, of which I’d already heard. My sisters reaction was the most compassionate and appropriate because it matched the emotional intensity and sadness that I was already feeling. I didn’t have to explain why I felt so lousy, or justify my grief. I didn’t need to make excuses for myself or my choices.
What I got from Katie during this brief interaction over the phone was something that I hadn’t yet received from anyone else. Validation and permission.
Permission to grieve for a loss felt so deeply. Validation of the pain of infertility reflected back to me through someone else’s voice.
Listening to her on the phone that night, I finally felt someone else understood why my heart was breaking without me needing to explain why.
My sister’s tears did more for me than any words ever could have.
Peggy McGillicuddy is a counselor, consultant and group facilitator who works with children but is not a mom. You can explore her blog at akidfirst.com.
I often think that people don’t know what to say, or feel that expressions of emotion will only make it worse. I think it would be welcome. I can’t tell you how often I’ve felt that my grief has misunderstood in the past few months, and just how much it would mean to me if someone would just say to me, “I know how badly you wanted this, and how it must hurt you.” But some people just can’t. How wonderful that you have someone like that feel with you. Thanks for sharing.
Isn’t it funny how saying something so simple, as you point out in your comment, is so rare. People think too much about the “correct” response or want to fix things. Either that or they avoid the subject. I am very lucky to have my sister, who does neither of these things.
What a wonderful sister. I’m currently recovering from a hysterectomy during which it was discovered that I had quite extensive endometriosis. Both my younger sisters have children and have been compassionate to my sadness about not having my own. I think I’ll share this with them – sometimes it might seem as though they need our permission to grieve for us; that it’s not just cousins for their children that they’re missing.
your post just made me cry. Because – that’s exactly what my younger sister did, few years ago.
Nobody ever cried because of my infertility, except me and my sister.
We are lucky to have sisters like that!
Hugs to both of you!
Thanks Klara! I am always grateful to have a sister….
This was a great post. I can’t say I’ve experienced it the way you have though. I wish I could. You see, I rarely talk to my (older) sister or my mom about my infertility struggles because they always seem to cry. I end up consoling them and then later, get mad at them for “taking away my struggle”. Does that even make sense?! When they have cried over my infertility, I always want to tell them this is my struggle, not theirs, “how dare you garner sympathy off of MY (and my husbands) struggle”. I know it does effect them because they are most likely never going to be an aunt or a grandma, but it infuriates me…and I can’t seem to get past it. I don’t think they intentionally do this, but that’s always the way I end up feeling. Maybe I am taking out my infertility anger on them…I just don’t know. Again, thanks for your post, it made me think.
Hi Megan – Yes, that makes a lot of sense!!! I have felt the same way at times when talking to various people, and primarily when I was in the midst of the struggle to get pregnant. When this conversation occurred with my sister, I had reached a point of “moving on” (if there is such a thing). I believe that made a difference….additionally my sister is not a touchy-feely kind of person, and tears are her last resort. Maybe for this reason I didn’t feel the need to console her. But believe me, my infertility anger still flares up at times! Thanks for commenting on my post…and I understand your anger…Peggy
Thank you for responding Peggy! I do appreciate it. I am in the midst of my struggle right now, hence the anger I suppose. It’s been 8 years of trying. Yikes! Good point about your sister not being the touchy-feely kind of person. My sister is the epitome of touchy-feely. Something I can admire, to be so open emotionally, but just don’t relate to at all. I look forward to reading more of your posts!
Wonderful post. I was just talking to my mom last night, sharing my journey and she was so amazing. She asked questions but didn’t force options on me. She really doesn’t know or understand how the process works but she empathized with me. She said “I just don’t know how you do it, How you handle it.” She said that I’m strong but I don’t always feel strong. I feel sad. But I don’t know how to prepare myself to share the news of possibly being childfree with others without them offering their thoughts and opinions. I’m scared for that moment and I hope they can respond like your sister did.
Thanks for reading my post! It’s great that your mom responded that way. I will say that honestly my sister is the only person whom I feel safe bringing up this topic with…however I try not to shy away from it anymore by just speaking my truth. For example, when I tell people I struggled with turning 40, and they tell me I’m silly and ask me why, I just tell the truth – “because I truly thought I would be a mom and I am sad that I am not.” It’s made for some awkward silences at the holiday dinner table, but I don’t care anymore!! It’s a big deal to just be real and admit that you are sad (in my opinion). So, I relate to your sadness….it’s what I feel more often than not…
I think when we have been faced with infertility that time in our early to mid 40s is rough. We look at time differently.
That was beautiful. My wife and I are coming close to finding out if our one shot at IVF worked or not. I was thinking of posting this very advice to prepare my friends and family if this doesn’t work out, but I don’t think I could say it as elegant. If you don’t mind, I will just reblog this post.
Thanks for responding and reading….I am sending good thoughts out to you and your wife, no matter the outcome.
Thank you Peggy.
Reblogged this on IVF male and commented:
As we come close to the end of our journey, I know you are all pulling for us and the wife and I are truly grateful for your support. But there is a real possibility the IVF didn’t work and I wanted to prepare my friends and family following this blog on how to respond if that turns out to be the case. As I was considering what to say to someone in our situation, I came across this post from Life Without Baby that says exactly what I was to planning to write, and better than I ever could.
What a great post — and what a gift your sister has given you. : )
I am blessed to have a best friend who really listens and supports me–we have cried together as well.
It’s so essential to have a friend like that….thanks for reading! Peggy