While our responses to loss have common features, not all loss is the same nor is all loss recognized in the same way. For those who struggle with infertility, pregnancy loss, and the unexpected results of genetic testing, grief is layered and complex. It is often unseen or marginalized by others, making the grieving process all the more difficult.
The disappointments caused by these losses are often overlooked– people do not see other hidden pain that lies beneath. Few people recognize the full impact of the sadness that the infertile couple is going through. The loss of a hoped-for future is one of the complex layers felt by the couple experiencing infertility. It can be very difficult to allow oneself to grieve over something that has not come into full existence. The dream of having a life with children may need to shift, or even be shattered, by infertility.
Couples who have gone through a pregnancy loss or the unexpected results of genetic testing also suffer the loss of dreams. Every couple has a vision of their baby and the life that they are going to have with him or her. And when that is lost, the pain is crushing, while the loss is often mourned in silence. Grief then turns invisible, unacknowledged even by well-meaning others who respond with such comments as “you can have another” or “it’s not your fault.” Or in such cases as multiples where one twin is lost, people might attempt to console with, “at least you have one baby.”
The number of these experiences is not small. Of course, even if it was, sufferings that are rare are harrowing or isolating in their own ways. Still, most of the invisible losses we have in mind here are common. To take just one type of loss, today as many as 20% of clinically diagnosed pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Despite this high number, these experiences are not widely shared or talked about. Even in the contemporary world of social media, life event announcements and updates tend not to extend to these kinds of hardships.
What does this mean for people who experience invisible losses and are suffering in silence? We need to remember that these couples carry the heartache of days, months and sometimes years of cumulative loss. They are mourning– over and over. It is our task, as therapists, to witness and help them express the roller coaster of emotions that they are experiencing. Our patients need to feel their way through the losses, and over time, fold them into their lives–finding a “new normal” and creating an expanded life narrative.
We need to ask ourselves, how comfortable are we giving a name, a story, and a voice to their pain? Through sharing their heartache with us, with their partners, and with trusted loved ones, these couples eventually heal and move forward with a “new normal” in place.
When loss is brought out of invisibility and silence, couples can live their lives out of the shadows feeling loved, accepted and supported by those around them. While the human lens toward the world is forever reshaped by loss, the experience of joy can be recovered and even increased. It is through their stories- by honoring their losses- life can once again hold meaning and wholeness.
–A modified version of this article was submitted by Michele L. Weiss, LMFT, and Vanessa R. Bradden, LMFT, to The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Click on the link below for that version.