When IVF Doesn't Work: Processing Feelings of Grief
Couples struggling to conceive may experience a range of complicated emotions and grief, especially when interventions like IVF don't succeed
Counsellor Miriam Christie shares her own experience and tips to help others
We have therapists who specialise in working with infertility, fears around pregnancy and miscarriage – find yours here
After months of the injections, patches and pessaries, there it was again. Negative. So swift, so blunt, so definite. After so much invested time, money and hope, it didn’t seem fair to get a big fat ‘no’ from a peed-on stick and a three-minute wait. Surely there should be an appeals process? I wanted a recount. But no, what you’re left with is the grief. The end of hope and a chasm that feels like it has to be filled with ‘what next?’
Grieving for the baby that never was is as multi-faceted as it is taboo. I grieved for the hope of a baby and it felt like each negative result made it less likely that it would actually ever happen. I felt cheated by my body and resentful of the months into years of my life lost to this obsession. I felt sick at the loss of the ‘happily ever after’ scenarios I had indulged in.
This cauldron of emotions felt all the harder to acknowledge because, for the most part, it was a secret. Like many of us, I had protected myself from the everyday emotions and casual insensitivities of others by telling very few people about having IVF and so coming to the end of the journey with nothing to show for it felt lonely and empty.
I also played a leading role in beating myself up about feeling bereft. What was I really grieving for? I had never had a baby, so I couldn’t lose one. There were other people who had it worse than me, so I didn’t have the right to this grief.
Having experienced for myself these forms of grief and the way we deny ourselves the right to these feelings – and also witnessing them as a counsellor – I can tell you that you are not alone in whatever you’re feeling about your IVF experience. These emotions are shared by others and are very real and valid. What I have described scrapes the surface of the many ways in which people grieve with IVF – our present experience can be littered with triggers for grief, both old and new.
Here are a few things that I have found can help to honour your feelings, to reconcile with grief and to care for yourself when hopes are dashed.
Counselling after IVF doesn't work
Therapy provided me with a weekly safe space; somewhere I could talk through all of my thoughts and feelings without having to worry about others’ feelings. There is something powerful and cathartic about verbalising your feelings. It enabled me to identify emotions tied into grief – anger, resentment, jealousy, fear, sadness – that might otherwise have remained unnamed below the surface, ready to bubble up and overwhelm me at the drop of a hat.
Couples counselling can also be a valuable way to strengthen communication and re-cement the bond between you and your partner during the emotional endurance test that is IVF. As the IVF journey went from months to years, it was easy for our paths to separate. It was all happening to my body and I felt responsible, while my partner often felt left on the side-lines. His role was to be supportive, but he rarely got to be supported. Setting aside time to listen to each other, to talk about your worries and be reminded of your love for one another will help you to come through the shitty times closer than ever.
Your clinic may offer you counselling with a therapist who specialises in fertility issues. This usually takes place weekly either at the clinic or at their practice. If this is not available through your clinic, there are a number of reliable listings sites to help you find qualified practitioners, including the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the UKCP register, or a directory like welldoing.org.
You can’t always wait for a weekly therapy session to feel and process feelings, of course. Grief is an ongoing ebb and flow. There are always going to be times when we need to put a lid on present emotions – you don’t want to be crying on that conference call with the US office, for example. But it is important that we give ourselves the space to lift the lid and let the pressure out when we can.
I was looking for reasons why my cycle failed and the easiest thing to settle on was my body. But, as the saying goes, “don’t believe everything you think”. Any good Buddhist or economist will reassure you, life’s outcomes are largely random. I realise that could read like a bit of a morbid mantra for one’s life, but bear with me. It means that we can stop blaming ourselves and start giving ourselves the empathy we need.
Care for yourself like you would a close friend. Simple things that you enjoy can help you to nurture self-compassion and connect you back to the positivity in your here and now. For me, it’s exercise – both a sweaty run and a mindful yoga practice served their purpose and helped me to make friends with my body again.
Talk to safe friends and family
We all have those well-meaning people who want to lift us out of our grief with all sorts of well-intentioned tactics, from tough love (“Pull yourself together”) to rose tinted glasses (“Look on the bright side”) to undermining the grief (“It’s not as bad as what happened to Sandra”) to fixing (“You could just adopt”). There may be a time for those people and it’s for us to choose when we need that, but for now take comfort from the people who can just acknowledge that it sucks and will be there for you.
Spend time with your partner
If you’re going through this with a partner, give time to hear each other without fixing and then build in time to do something nice and normal together. For me, the sense that life goes on gave me some comfort.
It may seem obvious, but life can get in the way sometimes and leave you feeling like you are on separate journeys. My husband was having a really tough time at work while I was on my most recent cycle and we were often like ships crossing in the night, despite the fact he made superhuman efforts to be at every one of my clinic appointments.
I’m not proud of this, but, when I was at my darkest ebb, I forgot that my husband also had emotional investment in this dashed hope. I felt alone with it and didn’t make much room for his feelings. On the other hand, he felt like his main role was to support me, at the cost of his own nervous system. Small things like a chat over brunch went a long way to helping us come back to what was important – us, as a couple.
Beware of social media surround sound
Social media in general is best filtered and rationed. On the one hand, there are supportive communities out there and it can be reassuring to know people are having similar experiences. However, constant immersion in the #ttc (trying to conceive) community can make you feel like that’s all there is to life.
For many of us, Facebook is now just a gauntlet of baby photos. You don’t need to see all this right now. When you’re experiencing grief, you need to be gentle with yourself so beware of the unnecessary triggers that a refreshed Facebook page can bring.