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.