Most people think they know about infertility. They know a neighbour’s daughter or a co-worker’s friend who has gone through IVF. They know that it involves numerous tests, procedures and cycles and that it’s not an easy path. They are fairly confident that because they know some parts of what is a very scientific process that they have a good grasp of what it entails.
Here is what they don’t know
Viewing infertility from a distance is a very different experience from being on the pointy end of the needle. What is often overlooked is that the testing tests more than your fertility. It tests your relationships, your finances, your patience, your courage, your resilience and your identity. The procedures are confronting and painful. Having dye injected into your Fallopian tubes to see if they are functioning correctly is both terrifying and incredibly painful. Being wheeled into a room full of more than ten men and women who are soon to see the inner most parts of your ovaries is to say the least overwhelming. Repeated internal ultra sounds, medical appointments, waiting for results. Injecting yourself with hormones that skew reality all the while trying to pretend that your head isn’t pounding, your ovaries aren’t splitting and you are not fading slowly away from a normal existence is a sliver of the tip of the iceberg.
Well meaning and clearly unaware people do tell you to relax (impossible), go on a holiday (that does not actually replace necessary medical treatment), adopt (also near impossible) or enjoy sleeping in (downright insulting when your heart aches to be woken in the middle of the night to hold your child). And so out of self preservation you shut down and shut out. It’s hard enough to manage your own experience let alone having to correct, educate or enlighten people about your unique medical condition or that the wait list for adoption is years long, offers no guarantees for parenthood and brings its own set of complications. Then there is the pseudo-medical advice on how to effectively reproduce and well you get the idea. So it becomes easier not to share and now you are isolated, unsupported and staring down the barrel of the greatest challenge of your life.
But the hardest part, by far the very hardest part is the unacknowledged grief. In counselling terms they call it ambiguous grief.
It is the grief that happens when other people aren’t watching
The physical, emotional and financial toll of every failed cycle is like a miscarriage, unless of course you do miscarry and then it’s a hundred times worse, unless you have had multiple miscarriages and then it’s a million times worse. And because you don’t have something or someone to physically put into a space for others to see, to recognise as a being that touched your heart, that precious embryo that you have been injecting for, scanning for and praying for is gone. People do not recognise this loss or the loss, after loss, after loss.
There is another counselling framework that is relevant to reflect upon. It is the Dual Process of Grief. When we experience a loss there are two key components in effectively moving through loss; a grief orientation and a restoration orientation. It basically means that when you are hurting cry, grieve, ache and when you can take those small steps forward to rebuild your life do so. Most importantly in a healthy grieving process there must be a space for both grief and restoration in a kind of awkward seesaw until the sadness softens and you can be OK.
Like any other loss infertility is a grief that cannot be undone
Some women do go on to successfully conceive but they still carry the pain of infertility, forever changed. Others, after several unsuccessful attempts decide that the pain of continuing treatment is greater than the pain of being childless or fate decides for them through job loss, marriage breakdowns or some other curve ball. These women bravely dive into the bitter depths of their heart ache and carve out incredible lives often in the service of others in usually unseen and selfless ways.
Then there are those stuck in the endless abyss of yearning to be a mother, in the middle of a flurry of medical procedures not knowing if they will ever realise their dream. It is an incredibly painful place to exist.
These women are in a place of grief without restoration
They suffer, they lose another embryo, take a moment to grieve and when physically and financially possible they pick themselves up and try again. What seems like restoration to the untrained eye is actually another courageous leap of faith that may possibly sink them more deeply into the despair of unresolved, unacknowledged and unbearable grief. It is no wonder that women undergoing fertility treatment experience chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
As with any other grief nurturing is crucial to healing.
If you know anyone undergoing fertility treatment it is safe to assume that they are hurting. All too often we steer clear of grieving people because we don’t want to make their pain worse but by staying away we end up doing that anyway.
Supporting someone in pain is simple, be there and follow their lead
If they want to talk ask questions and listen. If they don’t find something to do to take their mind off their pain even just for an hour. Nurture them with time, hugs, nourishing food and true companionship. Just be there and let them be there for you when you need them too. How do I know this? I too have been on the pointy end of the needle and I also provide counselling support to those with fertility issues.
Infertility is a long process fraught with jagged edges and it’s our loved ones that give us a soft place to land, help us remember our who we truly are so that we can find our way once again. If you or someone else you know is struggling with infertility call The Nurture Foundation for a free fifteen minute consultation on 0419 101 665 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.