As a marriage and family therapist, I regularly help people grieve “things” that they never actually had or experienced. Clients grieve the loss of hopes for a successful career that never came to fruition, dreams for a marriage that never came to be, or expectations for their own childhood that were never met. I’ve also witnessed a client grieve her birth experience—hopes she had for the birth of her child that went drastically, even traumatically, different than she had expected.
Another common experience involving grief? Infertility. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), around 10 percent of women in the United States suffer from infertility, or the inability to get pregnant after one year of trying. This definition alone can actually be a source of difficulty for couples trying to conceive who haven’t been trying for a year yet. During this time, many medical providers metaphorically hand-wave couples who show alarm at their apparent difficulty to conceive. The reason for this is that medical providers know it can take couples a few months, on average, to conceive; only about 30 percent of couples successfully conceive the first cycle. However, this also means that while 10 percent of women experience infertility as it is technically defined, certainly many, many more are also suffering from the pain of not being pregnant. Once most couples have decided to start a family, there is usually a sense of wanting to be pregnant right away. Often, then, there is a sense of loss with every cycle that they are not pregnant while trying to conceive. From my own experience, and from listening to friends and clients alike, every cycle that a child is not conceived can incite an intense bout of grief. Grief—deep sorrow caused by loss—over the loss of hope for a child to love, dreams of oneself as a mother or father, or expectations for what getting pregnant this month would have meant (for example, “we won’t have a baby by Christmas, by the time I’m a certain age, while living in this house”).
While enduring such an intense roller coaster of emotions—each cycle hoping, waiting, grieving, then trying to hope again—there are some comments from well-meaning friends and family that can be salt in this already deep wound. If you know (or even suspect!) a loved one is trying to conceive, it’s best to avoid saying these three invalidating things to her:
01. “It’ll Happen Eventually!”
Earlier in our struggle to conceive, I ventured to share the pain of this experience with a friend. She smiled and reminded me of the aforementioned statistic, that it takes most couples at least three months to conceive. Like many women attempting to get pregnant, I was already aware of this fact, but it didn’t lessen the emotional turmoil I experienced each cycle. While I know this friend only had the best of intentions, it made me feel like my pain wasn’t “enough”—like I shouldn’t be upset because we hadn’t been trying to conceive for long “enough.”
Unfortunately, the hard truth is that no one knows that conceiving a child will happen eventually. Yes, for most people it is likely to happen eventually. Yes, for most people it does take some time. But, sadly, it doesn’t happen for everyone. Comments such as these also unintentionally invalidate the experience of the specific person in front of you. Responding with a statistic or a promise you can’t guarantee can make your friend feel unseen, unheard, and possibly even that another person “doesn’t get it.”
02. “This One Couple I Know…”
Giving your friend examples of a couple you knew who tried for three years and then miraculously got pregnant naturally after adopting, or how your parents struggled to conceive and now have five kids, might instill hope in her—but it also might not. For one, these anecdotes imply the comment mentioned above—that it will happen eventually. (And, as I’ve mentioned, unfortunately you can’t assure that, even if it happened for your mom or best friend that way.) Also, such stories might actually feel like a reminder to your friend that seemingly everyone else is able to conceive except her (and every pregnancy or birth announcement she sees on social media can already be overwhelming in this way). Finally, this comment can also be unintentionally invalidating. Instead of acknowledging your friend’s pain, such a comment shifts the conversation from her personal experience to a seemingly irrelevant story.
03. “You Should Try…”
I know that giving a friend unsolicited advice on what to try or which doctor to see is absolutely well-intentioned. We hate to see our loved ones suffering, and we want to do whatever we can to alleviate their suffering. But when people offer unsolicited suggestions, it not only leaves those suffering from infertility feeling unseen and unheard (yet again), but such comments also fail to recognize how much emotional energy and effort any attempted solution takes.
Well-meaning tips can’t just be implemented at the snap of her fingers. Each doctor or medical procedure, however small or simple, requires time and wait lists. Even natural means, like changing one’s diet and lifestyle factors (which my husband and I used)—though good for your overall health, free, and non-invasive—take considerable effort, intentionality, and time to see effects. Moreover, every possible or attempted tip or solution requires the couple to do research and get their hopes up that it will help—and it can be incredibly devastating if and when it doesn’t work. If your friend asks for tips or advice, that’s another story. Feel free to share knowledge on the topic, that doctor you saw, or that book you read if she solicits such advice.
At this point, you might be wondering what you should say to friends experiencing infertility. Instead of the above three comments, try these validating responses to your friend:
Your friend or sister or whoever is trying to conceive might not want to talk about it—but she might. The journey of infertility can be not only painful, but isolating, especially if it seems like everyone else is getting pregnant (or, if no one else she knows is even trying to). She might feel hesitant to share her story if she’s experienced others giving advice or reassurance in response to her sharing her pain. It likely feels validating to her just to have someone listen and bear witness to the pain she’s in. As uncomfortable as it is to sit there and not know what to say or do while another is crying or in pain, your loving and attentive presence itself does more than you realize.
02. Tell or Show Her How It Feels to See Her in Pain
The antidote to the first three invalidating responses of trying to take away or minimize her pain? Sitting in the muck of it with her. Instead of running from her pain or trying to make it go away, tolerate the inevitable discomfort of seeing someone you love in pain and even try to feel what she feels—empathize. You don’t have to experience infertility yourself to do this. I’m sure you know what it’s like to have an important hope or dream not come to fruition—tap into that experience. The most validating response I ever received when I opened up about our infertility to a friend was when she started to cry. She hadn’t experienced this herself, but I knew from this response that it caused her pain to see me in pain. She didn’t have to say anything to convey her deep sense of empathy. You certainly don’t have to force yourself to cry, but find a way to convey—either with or without words—that you share your friend’s suffering.
03. Tell Her You’re Sorry
After admitting honestly and with a heavy heart, “I hate seeing you in pain” (validating option #2), you can add, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” If that is all you can think to say without resorting to one of the three invalidating comments, that’s okay! You can simply admit that you don’t know what to say, but if she wants to talk, you’re here to listen (validating option #1) and if she needs anything, to let you know. (That way, if your friend wants to know what helped your sister overcome infertility or what local doctor you recommend seeing, she knows she can ask you.)
It can be very difficult, even painful, to see a loved one in pain, especially when nothing in our power can change it. We often don’t know what to say when someone else is upset or crying, so we offer a positive outlook, anecdote, or advice. Unfortunately, the experience of the one suffering in these moments is often feeling unheard or unseen—invalidated. Instead of trying to take the other person’s pain away with a well-meaning outlook, anecdote, or advice, try to tolerate the discomfort by simply listening, saying you’re sorry, or empathizing. The latter responses convey “I see you, I hear you, even if I haven’t experienced what you’re going through”—validation. Even if you don’t feel like you’re “doing” anything, simply bearing witness to another’s pain in this way will do more than you know. Your loved one might not have the words to express this at the time (much like you!) but she will appreciate and remember your kind, validating presence.