There are many uncertainties while you’re on this fertility journey. One certainty is feeling the impacts of grief and loss. While I’d love to tell you otherwise, the truth is, there is no avoiding it. Grief and loss can rob you of being present, positive, energised and connected with those you love.
You might ask yourself how you can feel the loss of something you’ve never had?
Simply being on this journey means you are dealing with the fear of losing the future you have dreamed about, planned for, or perhaps lived over and over in your imagination since you were a child.
The possibility of never becoming a mother can be overwhelming.
The grief of losing a baby at any stage can be debilitating! Chances are if the loss was in the first trimester you hadn’t shared your exciting news with others, so you’re left to grieve silently and on your own. As a result some women withdraw, some distract themselves, even lash out due to heightened emotions. And because you haven’t shared your pregnancy news, the people you love don’t understand why you’re distracted or lashing out at them.
Infertility is often referred to as a rollercoaster - because like a rollercoaster there are ups and downs, highs and lows. Every month is filled with hopes and dreams. You hope this time is different.
You hope this pregnancy test will be positive. Or maybe if you’re going through ART you hope viable eggs will be retrieved. Or you hope for a successful transfer and viable, healthy embryos. There are no guarantees and it can be the opposite of what you hoped for, leading to despair and loss. You might struggle with accepting that you’ve done enough, or you are enough.
What makes infertility different from other types of events that cause grief and loss is its repeating nature - the reminders and triggers - month after month, cycle after cycle, treatment after treatment. Add to that, you are dealing with family, friends and colleagues enquiring, offering advice, even parading signs of their fertility success day-in day-out. It’s a lot!
Is what you are going through normal? Hell yes!
You may have heard of the stages of grief by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross? She suggests there are five stages we go through before we effectively process the loss we are facing. These stages are not sequential or linear – that is, they don’t necessarily present in order - and we can experience each stage to a different degree.
So what are the five stages of grief?
You are probably familiar with feelings of denial – “this can’t be happening” or “the doctor is wrong”. This stage can also be evident in those women who jump straight into another round of treatment without processing the loss and grief of what has just happened.
As a human you’d know all about anger? The anger of how unfair infertility is. The anger of noticing other pregnant women or mothers with children, and trying to accept that this situation isn’t about ‘deserving’ – that no-one is more deserving to be a mother compared to another. Or anger at your partner, your doctor, your sister, your mother, and yourself! This can also bring on feelings of guilt as you struggle to be loyal to them and celebrate with them while you are feeling so God-dam awful!
Then there’s our old friend, guilt. The guilt as you try to work through what you did or didn’t do. This stage can linger for a long time and can be very detrimental to your mental health and how you cope with your own situation.
Next there’s bargaining. The stage where you tell yourself if you do everything right next time then it will definitely work out right. Maybe you promise yourself if this round works you’ll watch what you eat and drink, and be healthy for the rest of your life. Or saying to your God, or to the universe – ‘give me a baby and I’ll be a good person’ or ‘I’ll never yell at my children’. When you say it out loud it seems nuts, but you can’t ignore that this is something we all do at different times during our grief. After all, you’d try anything to see your dream come true.
The reality is that you can’t go through the stages of grief and loss without feeling sad and depressed. The empty dreams, the disappointment, the complete exhaustion of holding on to hope. This stage seems to underlie all the other stages and can be very difficult to move through on your own. When this gets bad you may find yourself saying “what’s the point” or “this isn’t going to work, I should just give up”.
I have clients who tell me they aren’t getting invested in this transfer because they don’t want to be let down yet again. This is a form of depression - withholding your emotions as a protective strategy – but it doesn’t work. You still get let down, no matter what you tell yourself, and it’s perfectly natural that you feel that way….and that’s ok.
The biggest issue with this stage is that it does linger and you may notice changes in eating patterns or how well you sleep. You might start to withdraw from the activities that bring you joy and energy. Withdrawal is ok when it’s a protective strategy, but when it prevents you from living the life you normally enjoy, you may need to talk to someone.
Acceptance is the final stage for the Kubler-Ross model, but as I said, we can go through these at different times. Acceptance is the most empowering stage because it’s when you develop the self-belief you can get through this … and you will be ok. You are past questioning if you’re broken - even though it feels that way at times - but you’ve realised it’s a feeling (or data) and not who you are as a person.
Once you reach this stage you might start looking at alternatives to how you will fulfil your dream of parenthood and comfortably explore new and different options. You might start looking into egg or sperm donors, or surrogacy, or even - like one of my clients did - explore a change in career so you can fulfil your mothering instinct in other ways. Now you’ve reached acceptance you’re open to different opportunities and a feeling of being ok no matter what the future holds for you.
It’s completely normal to feel stuck. It’s also completely normal to feel stress along with your grief and loss. Click here to learn more about how stress impacts your fertility. Remember you’re dealing with really big life issues. So if you need support, reach out and ask for it.
Go gently, allowing all the emotions to have a space as they are powerful and purposeful. You can get through this and you will be ok….that I do know.