As the rate of fertility issues remains high and awareness grows, we are learning of more and more stories of loss, frustration and battles with fertility from everyone from the people closest to us to distant friends to public figures and celebrities.
The openness about these life changing events is fairly new, while the struggle is not new at all. Women who choose to share their experiences more often than not discover people they never dreamed of have gone through a similar heartache of their own, including family members, coworkers and dear friends.
Whether you’ve experienced a miscarriage or infertility yourself, or not, I know that learning of someone’s heartache is always a careful situation. It is natural to not want to say the wrong thing and the truth is, there is nothing that can be said that can make the situation better - unless you’re a stork delivering a healthy pregnancy and baby. So, not likely, sorry.
In this past post, I highlighted some of the responses women who are trying to conceive often hear when sharing their stories and how to deal with them, but what do you do when you’re on the other end?
At least once a week (sadly) I hear from a friend saying that they know someone who has just had a miscarriage or is having a difficult journey with IVF who they would love for me to speak to. It’s happening, it’s common and there are ways to help no matter where you are coming from.
ASK "HOW ARE YOU TODAY?" - TODAY being the key word here, because every day can hold a different mindset, mood, and emotions. Some days, especially in the beginning, grief and reality will hit your friend within moments of waking up, and those days are harder. The immediate weight of what has been lost and the fear of never having what she wants more than anything will rush over her before she’s even had time to register what the painful emotions she is feeling are from. Other days, as time goes on and the process continues, she will wake up distracted by life, more positive and with the hope that comes with being able to try again.
Sheryl Sandberg describes this perfectly in her book, “Option B,” about grief and resilience, written after the sudden death of her husband. She says, "…if people instead asked ‘How are you today?’ it showed that they were aware that I was struggling to get through each day. ...That question also helped me realize that my all-encompassing grief might not be permanent.”
SKIP "WHAT'S MEANT TO BE WILL BE" & "TIMING IS EVERYTHING" - This is because I guarantee your friend has already told herself that, over and over. They’ve lost their meaning. Both are true, but when you’re putting your heart, soul, and BODY into trying to have a healthy baby and have gotten only heartache in return so far, these concepts are hard to hear from others on the outside. When thrown out too lightly at the wrong time, these questions can trigger the thought - “So then am I not meant to be pregnant...or have children?” - a very dangerous, unproductive place to go.
INSTEAD TRY "I LOVE YOU, I'M WITH YOU, & DO YOU WANT ME TO COME OVER?" - The answer may be “I love you too, thank you, and no, I want to be alone right now,” but I assure you knowing the love and support is there, and the option to spend time with someone who loves you is enough. When the time comes, your friend will reach out to you to get together when she needs it, knowing that you want to be there.
You can also try asking if she would like to get out of the house, even to see a movie, get coffee, or come sit on your couch for a change of scenery. Often she won't even know how much a trip out of the house - even to sit in the same sweatpants on your couch and watch trash TV - can make life a little more tolerable.
ASK "DO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT?" - This is such a powerful question. It shows that you care and that you want to be a source of support for her. It also gives her the option of being able to open up and vent, or, to choose not to talk about it and let you be a positive distraction for her for a bit.
If she does open up, listen. You don’t have to offer advice. She’s not looking for it. (Unless she asks, of course.) Instead, giving her the safe space to talk and work out her own thoughts is the most helpful thing you can do. Hugs are encouraged.
AVOID AVOIDING - If you too are trying to get pregnant, and especially if you do, avoiding your friend who is having a harder time than you is not helpful. While it can easily feel like putting their feelings first, the truth is it adds to her loneliness. It’s better to keep the communication lines open and honest from both ends.
If your friend is grieving a loss, let her lead the conversation and topics. When she can, she will ask how you are, because she DOES care. She wants to be there for you, too. She will do the best she can.
If you are not in a place of trying to conceive and/or simply do not know what to say, saying exactly that is the most helpful thing you can do. A simple “I’m not sure what to say except I’m sorry and I’m here for you” means the world, rather than not addressing it at all or avoiding someone for fear of hurting their feelings.
BUT UNDERSTAND IF YOU ARE AVOIDED - If you are pregnant or have recently had a baby and your friend seems to be avoiding you, do not take it personally. It may be painful and it does feel very personal, but know that it has nothing to do with you and so much to do with your friend’s recovery.
For example, if after a loss or receiving heartbreaking news of a failed IVF attempt, your friend mentions it is very hard for her to talk to you, or you don’t hear back from her for a while, know that she is doing this because she has to and not because she wants to. There is a certain period of time when there is so much pain and the best thing she can do for herself is what is right for her at that time. That includes avoiding triggers until her emotional and mental strength are built back up.
Your growing belly, excitement, or baby pictures (all deserved and celebration worthy!) may be a trigger for her. The best thing you can do as a friend and source of support is be patient, let her know you’re there and be there when the phone does ring, because it will.
ASK TO MAKE A CONNECTION - It can be super awkward to know of a resource you think will help your friend but not know how to broach the topic. This is what I hear about all the time when it comes to my coaching services.
The most helpful and productive way to address it is to tell your friend there’s a resource available that you think could be helpful - a personal and holistic health coach for women who have experienced pregnancy losses of all kinds and/or fertility issues - and ask her:
If she’d be comfortable with you sharing her email address with me so she will hear from me, eliminating the work and sometimes difficult task of writing that introductory email for her.
If she’d be comfortable with you making an email introduction by copying us both (I am firstname.lastname@example.org) on an email from you, connecting all of us.
The next step would be my responding with support and love, and simply asking if she’d like to chat over the phone for a few minutes. She can use that call however she’d like and will also have the opportunity to ask whatever questions she has, if any.
Having been through my own experiences with losses and frustration trying to conceive, my mission is to create awareness of the issue, but more importantly, to offer a safe space for women to process their emotions, love themselves through the heartache and feel in control of their journey to motherhood, no matter where that path might lead them.
A support system including a partner, family, friends, and co-workers is critical to being able to get through each day, to living in the present instead of getting stuck in the past and to building the strength to move forward. No matter where you fall in those relationship roles, I assure you, you are needed.