Tuesday, January 24

How to walk with someone facing infertility

I've Googled  "infertility" "endometriosis" more often than is probably emotionally healthy, and there are a lot of women out there (some really, super-angry women) struggling with infertility.  Many of those women have written "What NOT to say" blogs. But in the interest of helping friends of those who struggle with infertility, here's my contribution to the blogosphere.

You'll notice that you can substitute  any kind of suffering (i.e., death of a loved one, loss of a dream, etc). for the experience of "facing infertility."

One: Be Patient and Be in it for the Long Haul.

There have been a number of women that have joined together as a gang, generally unknown to one another, supporting me during this last year as I've whispered information to them. It began with a whispered "We're going to start a family!" then a quiet, "No, not yet. Who knew that it was so hard to get pregnant?" Then waiting through the quiet and repeated versions of "No, not yet." Then finally, "We went to the doctor. I have endometriosis. It means I might not be able to have kids."

Each of these women is dear to me, for different reasons. Some of this gang knows what it's like to wait for a year or more to become pregnant. Many have suffered a miscarriage and know the pain of having no control over what their body is doing. There's a whole group of them that are our cheerleaders for the simple fact that they're one large family, and Adam roomed with one of the brothers while in college. They've adopted us into their family.

Each woman in this group has emailed me after my updates and quietly encouraged me, usually with something along the lines of prayer and an apropo scripture. And I definitely needed those words.

And in the future, I really need them to be in it when I find out that we have hard decisions ahead.  That we have boring-nothing-new seasons ahead. That we have "who knows what God has planned," ahead. I need support when it's terrifying and when it's boring and even when it doesn't seem as though I need support.

Two: Be Good at Suffering - And Be Transparent with The Lessons it has taught.

The friends that have walked through this with me, my two closest friends, the ones that have figuratively held my hand through each day, they have suffered. Often. And deeply.

How a person responds to the news of infertility can reveal a lot about how they have processed and grown through grief, no matter in what "significant" or seemingly "insignificant" ways that grief comes.  It can also show if a person avoids pain, suffering, along with the splintery lessons taught while embracing the rough-hewn cross.

The reason that you want to be good at suffering (and not simply turn your face away and endure it) is to fulfill the scripture:

"[God], who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." 2 Cor 1:4

I'm not afraid to talk to my friends about my pain, because they know what that pain has been like, and they themselves have had to wrestle with the Lord and his plan for their life.  They don't avoid me because it's painful. They don't have to save me from my pain with a "perfect response." They know that they can endure watching me in emotional pain, because they trust a very big God who supported them through their pain.

The friends closest to me have learned through horrifically painful circumstances to offer mature responses. They use scripture like a balm, not as a bandaid. Everyone can grow and mature through many ways, but Suffering seems to put people on the fast track to maturity. And when you're the person suffering, you want mature answers, mature use of scripture, kindness, and gentleness.

Three: Realize that tears indicate importance; Tears reveal what is valuable and meaningful to the person. 
So, I cried at a relatively painless X-ray procedure. My physician was the medical partner of my fertility specialist. As instruments were going places I did not desire to have them be, I cried. As the doctor and nurse became concerned, I went on a therapy instructional lecture:

Crying means that this situation means something to me. It is important to me. It might be painful, or it may mean I am afraid. It might not be either of those things.  It might mean other things, too, but you'd have to ask that person what is underneath the tears. They may not know. But you can surmise that this is important to them.

When I cry, I am sometimes mourning the dream that has died, that Adam and I could already have had a baby (I planned-hoped for a baby to be born last August), that I would be a mom, and that we would have a life that looks kinda what I thought it would. That dream means something to me. It was important to me. I am mourning it. I'm adjusting to the New Normal.

Tears may mean that I value being a mom, and that I cannot be one at this time. It may indicate fear, fear that I will never be a mom the way I want to.

All of this is a process by which God allows us to give meaning and value to a situation or person. It is a process that is part of adjusting to the disappointments and changes in life. 

Do not freak out when your friend facing infertility cries. Understand that her tears are giving you a direct pathway to know what is important to her.

Four: Be prepared for her to cry at inopportune times

The thing about suffering/depression/grief is that the reminders of her infertility will come at the most inopportune time. (Like when a family member announces a pregnancy). She'll be angry at herself for the sadness welling up inside. She'll try every coping mechanism she's got. And there will be two typical options: cold, shutting down coupled with avoidance. Or she'll cry with vulnerability.

Remember that she too hates that her grief is uncontrollable, that it doesn't send her notice 3 weeks in advance so that she can prepare. She hates that she's perceived (by herself or others) as a Debby Downer.  Presume that she hates that her grief brings attention to her, instead of celebrating whatever is going on around her.

She simply wants to be one of the 90% of people who can conceive. But she isn't.

Five: Be Bold (or "Be Courageous")

This is not giving you permission to be insensitive, but rather, to dive into your personal news that may be difficult for your friend to hear. Or,  if you're calling to see how she's doing, don't let the small talk linger until there's no other subject but the looming elephant in the room. Be Bold.

A great example of this is my friend, Addie. She became pregnant while we were first beginning to try to conceive, and she told me before she broke the news to the whole world.  She subsequently lost that pregnancy, and I felt as though we had walked through some difficult parts of life together. (Of course, It also helped that we had walked through suffering together before this particular assignment of grief.) As I was facing surgery, she thought ahead and realized that she was going to announce her second pregnancy about that time. So she boldly told me three weeks before my surgery for endometriosis that she was pregnant again. Once again, she told me before the whole world knew on Facebook, told me privately, and wrapped it in understanding as to how the news might make me feel. Her choices and words made me feel like I was family. And I felt joy and love for her.

Six: Swear (a lot).

This is a personal favorite of mine, and I realize there are a LOT of Christians out there that swearing just makes them feel uncomfortable and ...mean. Mean as in: inferior in grade, quality, or character; or low in status, rank, or dignity. (Thank you dictionary.com).

As a therapist, I heard a LOT of swearing, and I generally do not like the F-bomb when it is directed TOWARD someone as a insult, as in "F-you." 

That aside, Swearing can be poetry when used properly, and for me (and perhaps for the very confused, very angry, very grieving woman you know), it was a way for me to express myself in a way that got a big, fat, pencil and underlined the emotions that I felt.

It literally became poetry for me and my girls as you can read here. (It's censored for the sweet innocent ears among us).

Swearing with my friends made me laugh - and hard! And I needed that. I think for those people uncomfortable with swearing, another title of this section would be "Strive to Understand your Friend, Be Down-to-Earth, Be Transparent, and All The While, Make Her Laugh." But that's just wayyyy too long to write as a title.

Seven: Ask Good Questions (or, "Remember that Time heals Grief, Simplistic Answers do not.")

It is easy to ask, "Oh, have you considered  ______ (Adoption, In Vitro, Fertility drugs, etc.."). The answer is "Yes" or "No." Then Awkwardness. Don't do the easy thing. Trust me when I tell you, she has been asked these (badly phrased) questions A LOT.

{Therapizing Alert!!} And if you ask poorly phrased questions, you are trying to get her to think ahead - to get her out of her present pain. And you are trying to assuage your own anxiety in the face of her pain. If you can't see how "giving her an answer for her pain in the form of a question" is about you and not about her, go see a good, Christian therapist.

In all of my "How to's" I am encouraging you to be mature. Another way maturity shows itself is in the way you ask questions.

Here are some alternatives (gleaned from 3 years of grad school and 3000 hours of practicing professional counseling):

  • What options have you considered?
  • How do you feel about the options?
  • What has your husband expressed about this?
  • What concerns do you have going forward?
  • How have you seen God show his grace through these events? (Be prepared for her to be angry at God and tears to come, however don't necessarily assume she's angry at you. This was a great question for me to ponder.)
  • How have you grieved the dreams that did not come true?
  • What has been the most helpful thing for you?
  • What has been the most disrupting and surprising?
  • How are you emotionally and/or spiritually caring for yourself? 
  • Who has given you the best counsel or support? What is she or he like? How did you become friends?
In response to some of these questions, She may say, "I don't know," and silence may envelope you. She may not have thought about these things. That doesn't mean you asked a bad question. Sometimes silence means you asked a good question. How can you tell? Does she seem Vulnerable and Tender? Or Cold and Withdrawn? Those are pretty good indicators.

Ok, and here's my "Do not": Do not ask her "What can I do to help?" or say "If you need anything... ask." She doesn't know the answer to that. And when she does need something, she's likely not to burden someone with the need.  Be a mature adult. Figure out something she'll like and come up with it on your own.

If you can't think of anything: Write a letter telling her you're in it. In it for the long haul. In it with swearing, and during the tears and the silence and the fear - both yours and hers. In it with faith. And when she cannot have faith, you will carry her to Christ with your faith. That he will do good things in her life.

A friend did this for me. And it made all the difference.


Addie said...

I'm so proud of you. It's time like these I like to remind people of Madelyn L'Engle's poem:

Dear God,
I hate you.

Because it can all be true, and it can be very therapeutic to realize that God can handle our anger/pain/hurt/confusion and, dare I say it, hatred. Because the important half of the poem is the last half. I might hate Him for a time, but I still love Him and need Him with a desperation that is real and tangible and without Him, what have I got?

A big fat zero, that's what.

Love you, Hannah.

Laura Ward said...

LOVE this. When you told me you were going to write this post, I knew it'd be fabulous, but it's even better now that it's here! Well done, friend. You've offered clear, practical, gracious, loving advice. And you've been vulnerable enough to entrust us with a piece of you as a part. I am inspired by your bravery & perseverance!

Missy said...

When I read this, I see Jesus. I know that at times it was a laborious post to write, but I'm glad you did. So thankful to be on this journey with you (and not just because you're my haiku muse).

Love you, friend.

Courtney Dey said...

Thank you, Hannah. There are so many of us who need to hear these words. They are especially timely for me. I'm just so sorry/sad/angry that you have the personal experience to speak so wisely about suffering. I'm glad I'm not God. I couldn't love the way He does...nor could I handle the consequences of loving the way He does...loved the haiku. ;)

With octaves of a mystic depth and height