October is "Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness" month. My eyes filled with tears as social media brought this to my attention a week or two ago. The past few months have made me more aware than ever before of the emotional and physical pain of loss and waiting surrounding fertility and childbearing. I have a stack of notecards that I cycle through weekly in prayer that bear the names of my dearest friends. Since August I have prayed for them as they have ...
- left the hospital with empty arms after loving on a baby for a night and a day. (adoption)
- experienced the sore disappointment of a failed first round of IVF.
- approached the one year mark of trying to conceive a child.
- confirmed the loss of a pregnancy just days after the joy of discovering two pink lines
- listened eagerly during the eight week appointment for a heartbeat that never showed up
I have wept for these friends. My prayer life has been filled with confusion, sadness, and questions. If it was up to me, God, I would be dealing out these fertility cards a little differently. My position as a friend in the lives of these women has provided me with a window into suffering and an opportunity to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing their burdens. But I have found myself at a consistent loss for what to say and how to come alongside them.
My prayers for wisdom, as well as conversations with these friends, have led to the insight contained within this post, but they have also prompted repentance as I have painfully recalled the ways I have not cared for others well, and may have even added to their heartache as they struggled to conceive, received news of infertility, or suffered the loss of a pregnancy. A hard look at my own interaction with suffering friends moved me to consider not publishing this post... but I chose to post it as an act of repentance with the full knowledge that I have failed so many. It is my sincere hope that this simple list will help women bridge the awkward and painful gap carved by this unique pain, protect against bitterness, and aid each other in clinging to grace as the Lord gives and takes away. This is not a hard and fast list. It is simply the categories that emerged as I polled the experience of my closest friends.
15 WAYS TO LOVE EACH OTHER WELL IN "TRYING", INFERTILITY, AND LOSS
1. COVER YOUR FRIENDS WITH PRAYER
We deceive ourselves if we believe that our words or actions have any power outside of God's sovereign will. The most powerful thing we can do in response to the longing and sorrow of our friends is to pray for them. Pray boldly your shared desire for them to conceive and carry a baby to term. Pray for comfort in the midst of loss and grief. Pray for the protection of their marriage during bereavement and longing. Pray that God would get glory because of their circumstance. And pray for wisdom as you seek to love them well in whatever they are facing. Let them know you are praying for them. Pray aloud with them. There is no greater gift you can give than to intercede for them.
2. ALWAYS ASSUME IN ANY GIVEN ROOM OF WOMEN (or in your audience on social media) THAT SOMEONE IS LONGING FOR A CHILD OR HAS SUFFERED THE LOSS OF ONE
Be gentle and careful when discussing pregnancy or your child. This does not mean that you cannot post the month by month updates of your baby because motherhood is hard and those milestones are to be celebrated. You do not have to walk on eggshells. But we should be careful not to unknowingly alienate or add salt to the wounds of a friend. Great strides can be made in this arena simply by being aware, avoiding flippant and insensitive statements, and making sure that topics of conversations are accessible and beneficial to everyone within earshot.
3. FOLLOW THE SUFFERER'S LEAD
Just as grief is a process, the needs of our friends in these situations are not static or textbook. They will vary from person to person and from day to day. If a friend asks for space, be willing to give it. If they ask for silence, be willing to hold your tongue. If they ask you to sit with them, be available to do so. Sometimes what we would want or what comes naturally to us isn't what brings the most comfort or encouragement to other women. You may not get to play the role in their suffering that you wanted. My friend who recently left the hospital empty armed said that for some reason it was much easier for her to talk with people she had never met than engage with people close with her. Remember that your friend's suffering is not about you.
4. ESTEEM THEIR LOSS/STRUGGLE
Communicating that infertility is a common struggle or that miscarriage is a common experience may bring a certain degree comfort or peace, but we must be careful not to trivialize or underplay the experience of a friend based on this fact. Each person's experience is unique. The generalization of their loss does not make it easier to bear. They do not need to be made feel over dramatic or out of line for their sadness or sorrow. Although it can be tempting to try to help a friend look on the bright side, statements that begin with "At least..." can be extremely hurtful. For example "At least you lost the pregnancy early before you were bonded to the baby" or "At least you already have one child" robs a friend struggling with an early pregnancy loss or having difficulty conceiving a second time of the opportunity to just sit in the pain. Each friend I spoke with in preparation for this article relayed that the phrase they most appreciated was "that's really hard and I am so sorry."
5. DO NOT RUSH THEIR GRIEF
The weekend we conceived Will, someone very dear to me suffered the loss of a pregnancy. I am ashamed at the way I handled her grief. I was so uncomfortable with the fact that I was having a healthy pregnancy while her womb was empty that I couldn't handle her pain in our interactions. My growing belly felt like an "elephant in the room" each time we were together. I allowed my desire for comfort to cause me to be more concerned with helping her to "move on/ forward" than giving her the time, space, and support she needed to grieve. Although in my case the rushing was selfish, sometimes this arises from a place of compassion. We don't like to see the people we love hurting. We long for them to be whole and happy. But it isn't necessarily true that they cannot be whole while grieving. God is perfectly able to meet and minister to them there. Grief is not sin.
6. AFFIRM THEIR CALLING
These types of struggles can so quickly become all consuming and often lead to various forms of depression. It is important for any woman in a season of waiting or loss to be reminded of her value in the kingdom of God. This affirmation does not have to occur in the same conversation as the discussion of their respective fertility issue... but when the opportunity arises, affirm where you see God at work in and through them.
- "Your friendship is such a gift to me."
- "You are an amazing teacher and your students are so blessed to have you. You are making a difference."
- "Your availability for mentoring is such a blessing to the younger girls you meet with."
- "I see your faithfulness in pursuing your neighbors and am praying for growth there!"
A woman is valuable for so many reasons beyond motherhood and childbearing... but its easy to forget during a season of longing for a child. Help your friend to remember her purpose and the truth that God is faithful to use us wherever we are and to provide us with whatever we need.
7. IF YOU DON'T KNOW THEM WELL, OR IF YOU ARE NOT IN PRIVATE, JUST DON'T ASK/ COMMENT
- "When are you going to make her a sibling?"
- "Are y'all planning to start a family soon?"
- "Come on in the water is fine!"
- "Hurry up! Your kids will be the runt cousins!"
- "Y'all probably will want to start trying soon because of your age, right?"
No, no, no, no, no. Never acceptable in casual conversation. The question may be asked in complete ignorance and innocence, but that doesn't mean that it wont cause pain in the responder. Across the board, my friends that are struggling to get pregnant or have suffered a miscarriage said that the hardest part was people asking questions like this... feeling hot all over, eyes welling with tears, having to lie or joke to evade the question. If you want to provide help or support, make yourself available through a statement in private. Don't be afraid to "rescue" a friend on the receiving end of a question like this. It's okay to ask how the conversation affected them. You wont make them sad by bringing it up... to quote Nancy Guthrie, "they are already sad."
8. HONOR THEIR PRIVACY
If a friend shares with you that they are trying to get pregnant, have been told they cannot have children, or have suffered loss... it does not become yours to tell. Just because something has been shared with you, you do not have the right to spread the news. You may think you are protecting them by helping people be sensitive to them. But advocating for general sensitivity or steering clear of certain topics in a group is more helpful than betraying trust and confidence. Remain a "safe" place for this friend, and by all means if they have chosen to share with you, ask them about it privately and give them the opportunity to process with you.
9. CONSIDER THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE WAY YOU DISCUSS FERTILITY
We should be careful as we discuss our own children and pregnancies not to suggest that they are things we "obtained" based on our merit or refer to them as our "reward" for waiting well. This waters seeds of bitterness in our friends who consistently surrender their desire for children to the Lord by suggesting that He is not good if He does not bless them, or that they are not good enough for Him to bless. It suggests that the Lord bestows blessings (children, sustained life) based on merit. The reality is ALL IS GRACE. None of us are promised children. We are not made mothers because we are more righteous. Many righteous women struggle to conceive, are barren, or suffer the loss of a pregnancy or child.
10. VALUE GOD'S WORD OVER YOUR OWN
Sometimes our desire to help someone feel better moves us to say things that sound good but aren't true. There may not be "another baby." But God is good and His word is sure. Stay away from feel good statements that are not theologically sound. The Lord heals the broken hearted and he speaks primarily through His word. Affirm His character to your friend; His concern for their lives; His acquaintance with suffering and loss; and His promise to swallow up death and dissatisfaction one day.
11. EDUCATE YOURSELF AND OFFER RESOURCES/CONNECTIONS
Nancy Guthrie's Holding on to Hope is an unbelievable resource for those who have suffered loss. Read it. Offer it. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller is helpful. Just Show Up by Kara Tippets beautifully addresses being a friend in the midst of loss. If you have two friends with a common experience, connect them. Paul suggests that one of the benefits of suffering is the ability to comfort others. No one should have to be isolated in their pain... and you shouldn't feel disqualified from caring well for a friend because you "don't know what to say or do."
12. WEEP AND REJOICE
The biblical command to "weep with those who weep" and "rejoice with those who rejoice" holds within it a tension. Often in this stage of life, I have observed two close friends weeping and rejoicing at the same time. It is an act of obedience to rejoice for a friend who conceives while you are "trying" and they should no more deny you that opportunity than you should deny them the privilege of weeping with you in frustration or loss. Do not let a gap widen where beautiful and honest community should thrive. This is a challenge... but it is worth it. We need each other's perspectives and support.
***on a practical note, my sister in law shared with me that when they conceived their first child, they told a friend who had been trying to get pregnant for over a year personally, but through an email. She relayed that this friend expressed her gratitude for telling her in a way that didn't blindside her and allowed her time to grieve privately in order to be able to fully celebrate when she saw them. I shared the news of our first pregnancy the same way with a dear friend in the same situation face to face, and although our time of crying together was precious, I do wish I would have given her that space.
13. BE AWARE OF FEELINGS OF GUILT AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
In asking friends what was helpful or unhelpful during their miscarriages and infertility struggles, a shared sentiment arose of guilt and a feeling of responsibility. This lie was fueled by friends' suggestions (Is your husband wearing briefs? He should switch to boxers. Are you getting enough calories? Are you taking a multivitamin? Maybe you're trying too often? Maybe you are/were too anxious? You should take better care of yourself.). This is especially tempting for those of us who are "fixers." The book of James suggests that each of us should be slow to speak and quick to listen. When met with a struggling or grieving friend, our opinions and advice are never as valuable as our presence and our empathy. Focusing on the hearts and souls of our friends instead of trouble shooting helps them to remember that fertility is not ultimate and protects them from a false sense of control or responsibility within their grief.
14. DO NOT OVER IDENTIFY
"I know exactly how you feel." Who has ever agreed with this statement upon hearing it? What comfort does it bring? This phrase intends to narrow a gap and provide common ground but actually removes the space for the grieving friend to be heard. If you have also struggled with infertility just say, "I was also told I would never have a child and it was so painful for me. I would love to listen to you if you want to talk about your experience." or "We tried for over a year before we got pregnant and I was lonely and discouraged. Please let me know if I can provide any comfort or support for you." Sharing your experience in a limited fashion and opening the door for questions allows the hurting person to reach out as they feel comfortable and protects them from the pressure of a mandated response to grief or disappointment.
15. REPENT OF THE WAYS YOU HAVE FAILED THE WOMEN AROUND YOU WHO ARE STRUGGLING WITH INFERTILITY AND WHO HAVE SUFFERED LOSS
None of us have done this perfectly. Confess your sin to the women in your life in these categories and be honest about your confusion about what to say or how to help. Be forthcoming about your own desire for comfort and how distracting it is from loving and caring for them. Ask them what they need and how you can love them better. Then listen and be faithful to pray for the willingness to follow through.
Finally, if you are someone who is "trying," has been diagnosed as "infertile," or who has suffered loss...
I ache for you. I am praying for you as I craft this post that you would be blessed with grace for the people around you. I pray that you would have the strength to tell them what you are thinking and feeling. I pray that our good God would grant you the boldness to lovingly help them understand what it looks like to love you well in this difficult season. I pray that you would find comfort, and that you would be granted the ability to grieve with hope and to rejoice with your friends who are rejoicing.
Thanks for taking the time to read this list. The beauty of the gospel is that it transcends awkward. The death and resurrection of Christ unites us to one another as a family and community. I hope that this list provides some practical help in living out that reality. May our desire to love well transcend our desire for comfort. May our fear of feeling awkward move us to encourage even when we don't know what to say. May we be protected from adding to each other's pain through small talk. and may God bless us with the courage to enter into each other's brokenness as His son has entered into ours.
PLEASE interact with this post and comment with your own experiences and observations, agreements and disagreements. Again, I recognize that I have failed in many if not all of these recommendations... but as I considered how to care for my friends, it seemed important for me to learn from my mistakes and try to protect others from making them.
grace and peace to each of you.