How to Talk to Her: a guide for the loved ones of women experiencing infertility/pregnancy loss

I just dropped off my five-year-old son at preschool, but there was a time when I thought I might not ever find my way to motherhood. I had multiple miscarriages, each one fresh devastation, each one further isolating me from friends and family. It seemed that no matter how I tried, I could not experience real connection with many of the important people in my life.

I had to learn how to live in a place of uncertainty and accept that all pathways to motherhood could possibly eventually close to me. This isn’t something loved ones like to think about, and I understood that. But when they tried to comfort me, they would often bypass what I was actually going through and say things that (unintentionally) made me feel worse.

While I was experiencing RPL (recurrent pregnancy loss), I was working toward my Master’s degree in clinical social work, which turned out to be an unexpected gift. I was learning listening skills and about the nature of authentic empathy just as I was navigating the most daunting emotional trial of my life. I bought a special journal. I took notes. What was happening between me and the people I loved? How were we missing each other when it came to connection, and why?

This article grew out of that special journal, a journal filled with thoughts and bits of research about the art of successful listening and connection. Carl Rogers became a hero of mine, during that time, as did Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Byron Katie.

If you would like to better support your loved one who is experiencing infertility/pregnancy loss, this article is for you. If you are that person who is suffering, consider printing this article and giving it to those with whom you want to connect the most. Sometimes the bravest thing we can say to another person is: “I need you.” Sometimes the bravest thing we can to do for another person is stand there with open arms and listen.

When have you struggled with uncertainty?
When a woman feels the full force of her primal urge to mother a child, she cannot turn it off. And no matter the pathway a woman pursues toward parenthood, she has no guarantees that she will one day have a child.

That strange space of no-guarantees. Most of us avoid it at all costs. When have you been inside that space? Do you remember what it felt like to be there, while deeply wanting only one outcome?

Pema Chodron says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.”

To try to understand what your loved one is feeling, approach her as an equal. Remember the times you have struggled with uncertainty yourself and realize it’s okay that she is going through that struggle. You don’t have to fix anything and you don’t have leave her alone. Join her. Say you are there to listen to her describe what it is like to live with uncertainty.

When have you lost your sense of belonging?

For many women, motherhood is the natural next stage of their lives, one they have been fantasizing about for years. The idea of being excluded from the tribe of motherhood can be unbearable for such women. Other women might not have been fantasizing about motherhood at all, but when they try to conceive and cannot, or when they have a loss, they are grief-stricken. They, too, feel stuck.

Think about your communities. From your neighborhood streets and the homes of your loved ones to the communities depicted on your television screens, you see women wanting to become pregnant, becoming pregnant, giving birth, nurturing infants, raising children. You see struggles, but not as much as you see successes. You see or participate in tribes of people who are all doing the same thing at around the same age: creating homes, building families, growing older. This gives a person a strong sense of belonging.

But what if you cannot get there? Like a person running toward a doorway in a dream, the doorway always receding?

When talking with your friend who is stuck in a stage of life she no longer wants to be in, remember the times you yourself have run toward a receding doorway. You can say to your friend: “For however long you are on this path, I am here beside you, holding your hand.”

Allow yourself to feel awkward

Most people, with the best of intentions, want to help others, especially those we love the most. The desire to help is not the problem; it’s the way we try to help that can cause the other person to feel disconnected from us.

Oftentimes, the desire to help manifests in a desire to fix problems. Stop tears. Restore balance.

Let’s say your friend begins telling you about a miscarriage she has had, and you begin to feel really awkward. Offering solutions suddenly seems like a good idea, and it might take you and your friend to a more comfortable place. But the more helpful thing to do is to allow yourself to feel awkward. If you do that, you are joining her, and she will feel it. Say, “There is nothing I can say that will take your pain away, but know that I am here for you now and whenever you need me.”

One day, during the time I was having losses, I met a friend at a park. As we began to walk, my friend and I said nothing. We just kept walking. It was uncomfortable. It was perfect. At the end, we hugged for a very long time in total silence and parted ways. I’ll never forget the power of that silent walk and my friend who shared my uneasiness for an hour.

 Ask for consent before asking questions

You might have many questions for your loved one about the treatment she is receiving. You might want to know whether she has seen a fertility specialist, looked into adoption, or seen a psychotherapist. You might even wonder about more specific things you have read about concerning diet, exercise, and conception methods. In general, it is best to ask for consent before posing these questions. You can say, “I would like to hear about the treatment you are receiving if you want to talk about it.” This will ensure that your loved one knows you are interested and ready to listen but that it is also okay for her to say, “No, I’d rather not talk about that at this time.” Another approach is to ask: “Do you want to talk about the adoption research you have done right now, or do we want to just be together?” This tells her that where she leads, you will follow.

If your friend has had a loss, you might be tempted to ask her how far along in the pregnancy she was. A kind approach to this question is to ask her consent first: “I would like to hear about your pregnancy, if you’d like to share the details with me.” If she wants to tell you the number of weeks of gestation, she will.

When you wonder how far along in a pregnancy your friend was when she lost, keep in mind that there are many kinds of loss. There are blighted ovums (empty gestational sacs with no fetal pole, no heartbeat), there are other first-trimester losses, second-trimester losses, third-trimester losses, stillbirths. And there are couples who cannot conceive a pregnancy but who yearn and fantasize every month—only to be grief-stricken when the woman’s menstrual period comes. In all of these situations, grief is valid, and there is no hierarchy of suffering.

 Try using open-ended questions

Close-ended questions can be answered with a yes or a no, and we tend to ask them automatically. But the problem with close-ended questions is that they can sway a person in one direction or another. For example, if you ask your loved one, Are you feeling better? she might be swayed to say “yes,” especially if it is at the beginning of a conversation. Try to frame your question in a more open way with the simple word how. “How are you feeling today?”

Some other open-ended questions you can ask are: “What do you think about that?” “What else have you been feeling?” Or simply: “Tell me more. I’m listening.”

In closing…

I want to emphasize that no one could follow the advice I’ve presented here in a perfect way. We are all human, and life, relationships, conversations—they’re messy. The important thing is to simply make the effort to listen in an open, supportive way. You don’t have to walk on eggshells and you don’t have to memorize the points in this article before you speak. Just showing up, holding her hand, and hugging her, can be enough.

A friend of mine recently had a miscarriage, and when I asked her if there was anything I should be sure to include in this article, she took a deep breath and was quiet for a moment. Then she said: “Make sure you say ‘She needs you right now. More than ever. Don’t disappear.’”

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