Grief and Infertility
Many patients will tell you that the emotional toll of fertility challenges is harder than the physical. By the time individuals and couples present for counselling, they are likely to be experiencing some form of fertility-related grief.
Grief is not only about death; it is the emotional reaction to the loss of someone or something that is important. For people who have always pictured themselves being a parent and raising a child, the thought of not being able to do so can be very upsetting.
There are many things that contribute to fertility-related grief and loss:
- Being unable to conceive naturally. The truth is that no couple dreams of doing IVF and it is normal to feel sad that your plans for an easy, natural conception without medical intervention has not panned out, despite your best efforts.
- Problems with reproductive organs (e.g. low ovarian reserve, poor quality eggs, sperm abnormalities): the diagnosis of a physical issue can come as a shock and will often mean that fertility treatment is the only option
- Making the decision to freeze eggs to preserve fertility: many women who choose to freeze talk about the sadness they feel and their fears that they won’t find a partner to raise a child with
- Miscarriage: regardless of when it happens, pregnancy loss is devastating. When a pregnancy ends, your dreams and plans for a future with a child are abruptly and often unexpectedly taken away.
- Making the choice to use donor eggs or sperm: not being able to have a biological child of your own is a significant loss and requires an adjustment to the way you conceptualise parenthood.
- Going through the surrogacy process: it is very normal to mourn the fact that you will not experience the process of pregnancy and childbirth, whilst simultaneously feeling grateful for the gift you have been given by your surrogate.
- Unsuccessful fertility treatment cycles: loss can happen at every stage of fertility treatment, i.e. failed fertilisation, no viable blastocysts, unsuccessful embryo transfers. For those who get to see a photo or video of their blastocyst prior to transfer, a negative HCG result 2 weeks later can leave them grieving for the child they hoped that blastocyst would become. With every subsequent negative result, the grief snowballs.
- Feeling disconnected/isolated from family and friends. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s because you choose to keep your fertility struggles to yourself or find it difficult to be around friends who are pregnant or having babies, infertility can drive a wedge between you and your loved ones, which can feel like a significant loss.
- Relationship issues: The physical, emotional and financial strain of fertility treatment will often cause tension in relationships. Couples may find themselves grieving the happy, carefree people they were before they started trying to conceive. Loss of intimacy can also be an issue for couples going through IVF.
- Sacrificing other important things in your life to focus on fertility treatment. Many patients will talk about “living in limbo” whilst they are going through fertility treatment and delaying plans, either because they don’t know where they will in their cycle or because they need the money to continue with treatment.
So how can you manage feelings of grief and loss?
- Do not dismiss your grief. Loss of a potential life is still a loss. Some patients will say that they feel relieved when they can put a name to the collection of emotions that they are experiencing – grief.
- Allow yourself some time-out to sit with your feelings of sadness if that’s what you need. The fact that some workplaces are now granting employees paid fertility-leave and compassionate leave, reinforces the fact that the physical and emotional toll of fertility treatment and early pregnancy loss is significant, and that people need time at home to rest and recover.
- Recognise that everyone grieves differently. Some people may prefer to be back at work. There is to right or wrong way to process loss.
- Be open with your partner about how you are feeling. Respect that they may be grieving in a different way and that’s okay. The important thing is that you’re open and honest with each other about what you need when you are going through a difficult time.
- Recognise that we you can’t control how you feel. Avoid statements such as “I shouldn’t be feeling this sad”, “I should be over it by now” or “I should be grateful for what I have”. Grief is uncomfortable but it is a normal response to loss.
- Surround yourself with people who will validate your grief and comfort you when you’re feeling down. Those around you will naturally want to make you feel better, so it can be helpful to think about the kind of support you need, e.g. someone to sit with and keep you company, a cooked meal, help looking after your child(ren).
- It’s okay to distance yourself from people who are dismissive of your grief or offer unhelpful support/advice.
- Practice good self-care. Show yourself the same compassion you would someone else in your position. Try to engage in behaviours that are good for your well-being, e.g. getting outside for a walk every day, eating regular meals, getting adequate sleep.
- Seek professional help. Every fertility clinic has a counselling team, who is there to offer emotional support.
- Keep a close eye on your mental health. If you notice that the grief is persisting; that you are experiencing constant feelings of sadness and hopelessness, no motivation or interest in life, significant changes in appetite and/or sleep or suicidal thoughts, it is important that you raise this with someone who can help – your partner, family, GP or mental health clinician.