Communicating Sympathy to Infertile Couples
by Ginger and Matthew Eppinette
(Written for and published by The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity)
For the approximately 1 in 16 couples who have difficulty conceiving, The Washington Post recently highlighted “a new—albeit untested—option.” It is a double CD set entitled Conceive; “a ‘sound therapy program’ that claims to enhance the odds of conception by reducing stress.” Certainly, dealing with infertility is stressful, but listening to a CD is not likely to help deal with the underlying source of the stress. Unfortunately, all too often, listening to the well-intentioned advice of friends and family is of no comfort either.
Responding to friends and family who are infertile, particularly after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or failed infertility treatment, can be an extremely delicate matter. Those in the fertile world often have no idea of the impact that typical responses have on the infertile world. People generally mean well, never intending to hurt with their words. Often comments are not well thought out, and are said simply to avoid an awkward silence. Such comments may be perceived as insensitive and hurtful. Sometimes simply sitting with someone and saying nothing is much better than saying anything at all!
By nature, we are all problem-solvers, and our first reaction is to help solve this “problem.” However, it is almost always best not to offer any kind of solutions or answers. Offering trivial solutions can invalidate the pain that a person is feeling. The message that is communicated unintentionally is that the person should not feel the way that he or she does. One counseling center advises, “Your well-meaning advice is an attempt to transform an extremely complicated predicament into a simplistic little problem. By simplifying their problem in this manner, you’ve diminished the validity of their emotions, making them feel psychologically undervalued.”
The following is a brief list of inappropriate and appropriate responses for communicating sympathy to infertile couples.
What NOT To Say:
•“Everything is going to be okay.”
•“You’ll get pregnant again.”
•“You can always adopt.”
•“My friend adopted and got pregnant right away.”
•“This is probably for the best; something was probably really wrong with this baby.”
•“This happens to a lot of women and they are okay.”
•“You’ll get over it.”
•“I’ve had it with my kids! You can have one of mine.”
•“You’ll be a parent by this time next year. I just know it!”
•“I had a friend, sister, etc. who had the same thing (or worse) happen.” (Immediately after a loss, people do not want to hear other stories.)
•“You shouldn’t be so unhappy. You have a lot to be thankful for.”
•“I wish I had your freedom—the freedom you have without children in your life.”
•“You should be over this by now and just move on.”
•“Go on vacation and you’ll get pregnant.”
•Teasing by saying “You just don’t seem to know how to do it right.”
•“Why don’t you just get a pet?”
What To Say:
•Rule of Thumb: the less you say initially, the better.
•“I am so sorry.”
•“I am thinking about you.”
•“I am praying for you.”
•“Is there anything I can do?” (But don’t be pushy.)
•“If you would like to talk, I’d like to listen.” (Without offering advice)
•“I’ll come eat lunch with you.” (Being in a crowded lunchroom, party, etc. can be difficult.)
•“We got a babysitter for Friday night. Do you want to go to dinner?” (Willingness to go out without your children can be a huge blessing.)
What is distinctively Christian about the way in which we respond to those who are unable to have children? A Christian response is one that is marked by love. In the context of infertility, love means allowing each couple to grieve the losses from infertility in their own way, and on their own schedule. The picture of fire in Proverbs 30:15b-16 is a vivid portrayal of the consuming nature, unquenchable pain, and ongoing struggle of infertility.
Bioethical situations are opportunities for creative love. This means there is no comprehensive response that we can simply pull out of a file and put in to action. We must involve ourselves in the lives of others, we must bear the burdens of others, and we must place their needs, interests, and desires ahead of our own. Find information about the facts of infertility and discard infertility myths and fables. Be sensitive to the fact that holidays, special occasions, and certain anniversaries can be painful for those without children. Above all, support your infertile friends in prayer, in Christian love, and by sharing their burden to whatever degree you are able.
All of this is easy to say but hard to do—impossible, in fact, without God’s enabling power.