For many couples wanting to have children, the process of getting pregnant seems simple enough. Do the deed around the time of ovulation, and voila! conception. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Despite what you may have been told in your sex ed class growing up, getting pregnant and even staying pregnant can be a struggle and invoke a myriad of emotions.
For couple Jenny and Bryan, their decision to have children started like many others. But after two years with no success, they went through fertility testing to find out there were “unknown reasons” for their inability to conceive. They underwent six rounds of IUI, a year-long emotional rollercoaster that Jenny said was grueling and all-consuming. After no success, Jenny and Bryan made the difficult decision to forgo any further treatment options.
“Even though we had discussed how far we wanted to go and what options we wanted to consider, there was still such an immense sense of loss,” Jenny recalled. “Loss of the future we imagined—taking our children to Disney and watching them grow up. Now that wasn’t going to happen. Thankfully our marriage is strong, and we had a strong support system that helped us through this grieving process.”
The harsh reality about infertility and pregnancy loss
Unfortunately, couples like Jenny and Bryan aren’t alone.
“Of all pregnancies, between 15% to 25% end in miscarriage, many in the first 12 weeks,” said Pooja Shah, MD, an OBGYN with Banner Health Center in Chandler, AZ. “And 10% to 15% of couples can’t achieve pregnancy within the first year of trying.”
Infertility and pregnancy loss can be surprising, heartbreaking, isolating and even embarrassing. It’s a difficult journey, but it doesn’t have to be a solitary one.
For those who know someone or a couple going through infertility woes, it can be confusing at times to know how you should react, support and be there for them.
How to support a friend or loved one
While there’s no playbook for how to support a friend or loved one through infertility and pregnancy loss, there are some general guidelines that can help. Jenny, Dr. Shah and Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ, share tips on what to do and not to do when it comes to supporting a friend through infertility.
What Not to Do and Say
1. Stay away from prescriptive (and unsolicited) advice.
Unless otherwise requested, resist the urge to provide advice or a prescription for next steps.
“Chances are that whoever has gone through this has tried everything under the sun—everything they want to try—so unsolicited advice isn’t helpful, even if it’s well-meaning,” Jenny said. “We had people in our lives who acted like we didn’t understand how babies were made because it was so easy for them.”
For example, avoid comments and questions such as these:
- “Why don’t you adopt?” Adoption may be on the table, but it’s not a simple process or available to everyone. It also doesn’t take away the pain they are going through at present.
- “Have you considered IVF?” Many insurance plans don’t cover IVF, so it can be cost-prohibitive for some. IVF also doesn’t 100% guarantee a baby either.
- “Maybe stopping/doing XYZ will improve your chances?” Don’t use blame for a reason they lost a baby or can’t get pregnant. Pregnancy doesn’t work that way. It’s unlikely anything they did caused their infertility issues.
2. Don’t ask about the cause(s) for the miscarriage or the reason for their infertility.
“Inquiring reasons for loss might trigger negative emotional reactions like guilt and take away the supportive and empathetic tone,” Dr. Dannaram said. “The cause for infertility could be too personal (sometimes involving the partner) and may not set an empathetic tone.”
3. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen.
Pregnancy loss and infertility isn’t an easy conversation, which may cause you to avoid the topic altogether. However, ignoring the elephant in the room altogether can make someone feel you aren’t sensitive or supportive.
4. Stay away from asking if they’re pregnant yet.
You may be curious, but technically, it’s none of your business. Getting pregnant and staying pregnant is already top-of-mind for them, so they don’t need to be constantly reminded or asked. When and if it happens, they’ll share when they are ready.
5. Stop speaking on the universe’s behalf.
No, their miscarriage or infertility wasn’t God’s plan or meant to be. Comments like these aren’t helpful—they’re hurtful. They imply your friend is not only infertile but that they also don’t deserve it or are being punished somehow.
What to Do and Say Instead
1. Follow their lead.
Some friends may be very vocal about their experience in public and on social media, while others prefer to keep things tight-lipped and handle within their close family unit.
“It’s important to know what’s OK and not OK for that couple,” Dr. Shah said. “Some couples are fine discussing; they’ve digested the information and feel comfortable talking about it. Whereas others may still be struggling emotionally to accept their loss. They may need more time to be in a better place to talk about it.”
2. Do listen and let them know you care.
Infertility and pregnancy loss can be very isolating. For some, they may retreat a bit. For others, they may want to talk about it. Let your friends know you are there for them and you care about them. If they do open up, just listen—don’t pry or give a pep talk. Let them vent and feel what they need to feel.
“With infertility, it’s totally out of our control, so we appreciated friends and family who let us share our reality and who just listened and said, ‘I know this has to be hard. I love you and I’m here for you,” Jenny said.
3. Provide a source of normalcy or distraction.
“Oftentimes when women go through infertility treatments that becomes so much of what they do and who they are at that time,” Dr. Shah said. “They don’t want to be asked questions. They want to go to work, go out to dinner with friends and not think about what they are obsessing about at home.”
Take your friend out to a movie, for a pedicure or just out for a coffee. But be understanding if your friend or loved one turns down the invitation. They may not be ready.
4. Do your own research.
Save your curious questions for Google. Read up about infertility and pregnancy loss, so you can better understand what they are going through. The American Psychological Association and the National Infertility Association are good places to start.
5. Be patient and respect their privacy.
Every person’s (and couple’s) journey through infertility and pregnancy loss is different and unique. Be patient and understanding and continue to be there to support them.
As well, respect their privacy. If your friend or loved one confides in you about their challenges, don’t spread the news with others—even if those people are family.
“When people share these experiences, they are sharing with close friends to seek reassurance and support based on the quality of relationship they have,” Dr. Dannaram said. “Unless they’ve asked you to share with us, keeping news confidential is a supportive approach that lets them recover from grief and stress.”
Being there for your friend during this time is something they’ll appreciate more than you’ll ever know. Whether they are having difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant, being there with open hearts and open ears will strengthen your relationship and help them navigate this arduous journey.
“It took a few years to navigate and process the stages of grief, but today we feel really good,” Jenny said. “We had so much love and support in helping us get through this. While we are childless ourselves, we have a niece and nephew and our friends’ kids in our lives who we spoil. Not to mention three adorable dogs who keep us busy. We are in a good place today and content.”