Grief & Loss
Whilst we don’t appear to have lost anything in a physical sense, many people facing involuntary childlessness suffer a deep sense of ‘loss and grief’ that is invisible to most people around us.
Realising that you are not going to have the family you’ve always hoped and dreamed of can feel very isolating. For me in particular, the grief was overwhelming and intense.
Facing the reality of not being able to have children is heart-breaking, whether trying to conceive a child naturally, using methods of assisted conception (IVF) or arriving at childlessness by another means.
What people don’t see - Invisible losses
The loss associated with involuntary childlessness sits more deeply than not being a Mother or Father, since we also lose the:
- chance and hope of ever having our own biological family
- celebrations of key milestones with our babies; the first day of school, passing their driving test or getting married
- chance to see our children play alongside our nieces and nephews
- experience of sharing holidays & our knowledge
- opportunity to experience being grandparents (although I appreciate this is not a given)
When does grief strike?
For me, realising that I wasn’t going to be a Mother didn’t just hit me one day. Due to the nature of my fertility investigations and treatment, the reality of our situation was a ‘gradual process’. With each failed cycle and loss, I began to recognise that our chances of becoming parents were fading in front of my eyes. With our last IVF cycle treatment failing, all hope was lost. Deciding to stop treatment after 8 years of trying for a baby was extremely difficult and very painful. It is hard to put into words the emotional and physical torment your body, mind and spirit goes through with each failed IVF cycle so allowing yourself the permission to grieve ‘your way’ is essential.
It took time and plenty of ‘grief-work’ for the cloud to lift, but steadily, I began to feel that I could experience hope and happiness again.
Things that helped me through the grief process:
- Recognising and owning our feelings of hopelessness, anger, disbelief, and bitterness is essential in the first stage of the grieving process. Know that it is ‘OK’ to have a bad day, week…! Once we are able to do this, it is the beginning of the healing process.
- Realising that grief is good and tears are a sign that healing is taking place. Communicate with people you trust, a counsellor or on online community support groups - with people who understand what you’re going through.
- Give yourself time to do what you need to do. Whether that is taking time out to be in nature, stay in bed or continuing to go to work if it offers you a distraction.
- Be kind to yourself: if you’ve had fertility treatment, your body will need time to recover. It’s easy to feel negative towards our bodies for somehow failing us, but nurturing ourselves and inner child is important.
- EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) helped deal with the all-consuming sadness I felt. By releasing any energy blockages associated with the treatment, infertility and loss I began to feel more accepting of the situation.
Finally, for me, the psychological loss of ‘a life I thought I was going to have’ was the most significant ‘invisible loss’ associated with involuntary childlessness. There are no rules where grief is concerned, your journey is unique. Grief never goes away completely, but as time goes on, the pain lessens and you’re able to live with your situation.
Dealing With the Question: "Do You Have Children?"
"Do you have children?" is one of the most painful questions you can ask someone facing involuntary childlessness, yet, I am asked this question by strangers and new people that I meet pretty much on a weekly basis. Whilst I appreciate this question can be an innocent conversation starter, for those dealing with not being able to have children, it can often strike up a range of painful feelings, emotions and is a deeply personal question.
For years, I dreaded these four words and was constantly seeking a perfect response, asking other childless people "how do I respond when people ask me if I have children?"
Over the years, I have come to realise that there is no easy and simple answer. Early on in my fertility journey, I would brush the question aside and say, "no, not yet", which was accepted by people when we had only been married a couple of years. As the time went on and we started fertility investigations and treatment, the questions started to get more intrusive and people began asking "don't you want children?" and "why don't you JUST adopt?" My heart would sink and I'd say, "We have 2 cats" and try to change the subject.
After many conversations with people, I now recognise that our response to this question is largely determined by how we're feeling at that particular moment and may vary depending on who is asking and the circumstances we are in.
So how can we deal with and prepare for the question?
Remember, you don't have to justify yourselfFor years, I felt the need to explain our situation to people, who in most cases, I didn't even know. This is a deeply personal issue which you shouldn't be forced to talk about. Changing the subject or deflecting the question back on the person can help ease the awkward feelings.
Consider setting boundaries about what you feel comfortable discussingDepending where you are in your journey, you may decide to be open about your situation. Just remember that this is your story and to only talk about it if you want to. It's amazing how many people are in the same situation and can relate, but be prepared as people like to tell us about miracle stories and about people that they know who got pregnant when they stopped trying.
Don't worry about appearing rude or directFor years, I felt the need to protect people from feeling awkward or bad when I said we couldn't have children. Now that I am further along in the journey, I say "unfortunately not" or "no, we can't have them". Our tone of voice plays an important part in how we communicate so it's worth practicing our responses.
Give yourself spaceIf you're feeling particularly anxious about attending an event or meeting new people for the first time, give yourself permission to find a quiet space and take a few deep breaths and re-engage when you feel ready.
Finally, as much as we can try to prepare ourselves for the "Do you have children?" question, it will still often prompt uncomfortable feelings. Remember to be kind yourself and say what feels right at the time.
Facing up to Childlessness - A straightforward process?
Realising that you are never going to be a mother or father is utterly heart-breaking. For many, where childlessness has not been a choice, the prospect of facing life without children is all-consuming & devastating. From wondering what to do with your life now, dealing with social exclusion to healing the deep sadness which lies within your soul, childlessness is anything but a straight forward process.
Facing up to childlessness is a complex, unique and a deeply individual process. There is no 'just getting over it' like we have a common cold or sore throat. For some, even the thought of having to deal with the prospect of a future without children is too painful. They choose to keep themselves busy with work, engaging in a various social activities and other distractions so they are too tired to even think about what childlessness may mean for them in the future.
Recognising these painful feelings and experiences as 'grief' is vital. Whilst we don't appear to have lost anything in a physical sense, many people facing involuntary childlessness suffer a deep sense of 'loss and grief' that is invisible to most people around us. There was no funeral for the loss of the babies they'd always imagined or lost as a result of miscarriage. So realising that you are not going to have the family you've always hoped and dreamed of can feel very isolating, many feel like they quite fit into society.
"Since I was a child I played with dolls and was the Mummy...you can't 'just face up' to a dream you have had since childhood, one that is supposed to be normal, you go through grief, loneliness, emptiness." (Nita, 61)
As with any other significant loss, those dealing with childlessness go through many stages of grief. It's a process which has to be taken one step at a time, one day at a time...
For some, learning to adjust their sails on a daily basis when dealing with this adversity is the only way forward. They change their lifestyle, making the most of the 'freedom' their friends with children would love to have. But in all honestly they'd swap all these things in a heartbeat for the chance to have their very own family.
Childlessness isn't something that just goes away, there are many triggers. From dealing with family, work colleague's pregnancy announcements, baby on board stickers, family parties, Facebook photos of children at Halloween events, quiet Christmas day mornings and silent tea times..... life often feels like it is moving on without us. We learn to live with it and accept it in the best way we can. Some feel it's possible to find peace and acceptance with their situation or circumstances whilst others say they never will and the ache and longing is permanent. The deep sadness is consuming and trying to make sense of the lonely, empty feelings can be challenging.
Channelling energy into an alternative passion, hobby, voluntary activities, exercise, crafts, sport, good cause, pets or concentrating on your work are ways of gaining a new focus. After spending years trying for a baby or thinking it might happen one day we forget to do the things that make us happy and give us purpose. Looking at the different areas of our lives and being able to filling them with other passions can make the loss easier to live with.
“I look back at my younger years, yes I would have spent less time crying & more time enjoying each other. I am tired of being Bitter and am making the rest of my life Better, children or not." (Nita, 61)
So facing up to childlessness is far from straightforward, there are complexities across so many levels and aspects of our lives. For me, the psychological loss of 'a life I thought I was going to have' was the most significant 'invisible loss' associated with coming to terms with involuntary childlessness. We have to find a way to channel our love in our heart, move forward each day and accept that where grief is concerned, our journey is unique, there are no rules.
Kelly Da Silva
Founder of The Dovecote. Org