Grieving and Growing: Creative Outlets to Grieving During Infertility By Beth Jaeger-Skigen, LCSW
Published in Resolve for the journey and beyond, Spring 2012
Grief will inevitably be a part of your infertility journey. Grieving each loss is an integral part of the process toward parenthood. I believe that in order to fully make next-step decisions with clarity, it is important to grieve losses in concrete and purposeful ways.
I believe that all people who are experiencing infertility are grieving parents. There is no avoiding grief.
Grief is never linear and grief from infertility is particularly nonlinear. People experience infertility cycles with both hope and loss. This brings high- highs and low- lows. The unique part of the infertility process is that the losses are compounding. Month after month, cycle after cycle, treatment after treatment, the losses compound and the grief can expand.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler Ross came up with five stages of grief in her classic book, “On Death and Dying.” She described the five stages a person goes through when they suffer a loss. Grief specialists throughout the years have found that these stages can be applicable to losses across the board. The stages aren’t linear and many grieving individuals find they move in and out of the different phases at different times during their grief.
"How will you know the difficulties of being human if you're always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds?" -- Rumi
Examples of the five stages of grieving as experienced in connection with infertility stages are:
Denial: After a diagnosis of infertility, a person might not believe it, think there was a lab error or simply, “my doctor is wrong.“ After a loss, a person might say she/he isn’t/ upset or “everything’s fine.” In this stage, often a person may continue quickly with further infertility treatment, without sitting and feeling the loss of the previous cycle.
Anger: An individual who is infertile or has experienced pregnancy loss may say “Why me? This is outrageously unfair!” The individual experiences this stage because they realize that they cannot continue with their denial. Many people experience anger targeted towards pregnant women or people with children. The individual may be angry at their partner, doctor, or any professionals assisting them with their infertility.
Bargaining: In this phase, I often see people attempting to do “everything right” to get pregnant. People will read everything on conception and change their diets or lifestyles dramatically with the bargaining/magical thinking mentality. If I work hard enough to get pregnant, then I will. I hear people say, “I promise to be happy for a friend/family member if I get pregnant” with the hope that their thoughts and actions will directly affect their pregnancy outcome.
Depression: “I’m never going to have a baby so what’s the point?” In this phase the individual may become increasingly isolated, refuse visitors, often spend much of the time crying and grieving. They might not be able to enjoy previous pleasurable activities and may see changes in sleeping and eating patterns. In this phase lasts long or recurs often, it may be time to seek professional help.
Acceptance: "It's going to be okay." This is the phase where infertile people start to reclaim their lives. They may say that they know they will be a mother or a father at some point and accept that the baby may come to them through a different way than they originally had hoped for. This may be a time when people can begin to explore different options, ART, third party reproduction, adoption, and the option of living without children.
There is no one right way to work through your grief. Below are some suggested activities that may bring you some comfort in your infertility journey.
Journaling: This can be a very good way to express feelings that people may not feel comfortable sharing with others. Journaling can avoid holding emotions in which can often extend the grief process or even lead to other physical and emotional problems. Journaling is a good way to express and hopefully, purge the anger and/or rage that you may be feeling.
Writing Letters to your (hoped for) Baby: Some people decide to write letters to the babies that they have miscarried. It’s often helpful to write a letter to a baby that you hoped for but have not been able to have yet. Oftentimes, people find it helpful to name the baby (even if it’s name that you don’t share with anyone else or it’s a spiritual or nature name). When you decide to move on to third party reproduction, adoption, or if you choose to live without children, it is often cathartic to write a letter to the genetic child that you had hoped and dreamed of having.
Create an Altar: When I was going through the depths of the darkness of my infertility journey, I put together an infertility altar. I collected fertility symbols, pictures, lab results, a one time positive home pregnancy test, poems, and I tended to it daily with pictures and candles. I meditated in front of this altar daily and I found a safe and balancing haven amidst all of the chaos and uncertainty of my infertility.
Plant a Garden: In my private therapy practice, I see infertile individuals and couples take to gardening during their infertility journey. Clients report that there is something healing to planting seeds, working at on one with the earth, and watching life emerge.
Additionally, you can plant a memorial garden for a miscarriage. You can plant a memorial garden for all of the babies you had hoped for month after month. You can plant a garden of hope. I have seen people plant butterfly gardens as well.
Create a Ritual or Healing Circle: Oftentimes it’s helpful to bring community together to help hold and support you in your times of both grief and hope. You may want to bring together supportive friends and family to create community to support you during a recent loss - a failed cycle or a miscarriage. One woman brought in a group of her closet friends in a time of hope-before one of her IVF cycles. Everyone brought her something for her altar, they said blessings over all of her medications, and shared stories of hardships that they had overcome in their lives. Sharing collective grief with people you trust and who love you can provide strength and support and can also reduce isolation during a particularly isolating time.
Access your own creative outlets: If you are a painter, or a sculptor, or knitter, or jewelry maker, or welder or gourmet chef, try to continue to use these creative outlets to work through your grief. Your creative outlets could be through cooking, or hiking, or yoga. If you stop your creative outlets as a result of your grief, you may want to talk with a trained therapist to assist you in finding ways to integrate these outlets back in your life.
Beth Jaeger-Skigen is a psycho-therapist in private practice in San Francisco specializing in all aspects of infertility. She provides therapy individuals, couple's, and groups and is also the consulting psycho-therapist for Acupuncture Kitchen. Beth has spoken at RESOLVE conferences and worked on RESOLVE's infertility helpline. She currently presents webinars, teleseminars, and lectures on the psychological aspects of infertility. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org