6. Unheard Grief: Understanding the Pain of Involuntary Childlessness

May 21, 2024

Today I am addressing the often misunderstood concept of disenfranchised grief associated with involuntary childlessness. This type of grief occurs when a loss isn’t openly acknowledged or socially validated. I will explore how the lack of societal recognition and support makes this grief particularly unique and challenging.

By exploring the specific difficulties faced by individuals dealing with involuntary childlessness, I will provide strategies for coping with the grief and highlight the importance of self-compassion and seeking professional help. My aim is to provide empathy, validation and guidance for women navigating the path of involuntary childlessness in this episode.

Learn more or book a free, no-obligation call to talk about what a coaching experience could look like for you HERE.

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Unheard Grief: Understanding the Pain of Involuntary Childlessness
Key Episode Takeaways:
  • Disenfranchised grief is a type that occurs when somebody experiences a loss that is not openly acknowledged or socially validated.
  • Pain from involuntary childlessness is unique because it is chronic. 
  • Everyone’s journey with this grief is unique. There’s no one size fits all to dealing with it.
Listen to the Full Episode:
Full Episode Transcript:

6. Unheard Grief: Understanding the Pain of Involuntary Childlessness

Hi, you're listening to Childless and Moving Onward. This is the place where we talk about thriving in life when you're a woman who is childless, not by choice, regardless of the road that brought you to childlessness.   Welcome back to Childless and Moving Onward. You are welcome here regardless of the journey that brought you to being childless not by choice or to those of you who are here because you know someone you care about and want to help them. Brief introduction for those of you who don't know me. I'm Gail Miller. I'm a life coach, physician, speaker, and I am childless by circumstance and not by choice. So today, what I want to talk about is something called disenfranchised grief or the grief of childlessness. It is way too common that people don't understand the grief that comes with this. It goes unrecognized, unnoticed, or it's misunderstood and considered something that you should or will get over. Or you're told something to the effect of, uh, you can't miss what you never had. With death, people get that there's grief. Although, admittedly, there are many people who think that there's grief that, you know, grief, even the grief over a death is something you should get over at some point, like there's some deadline, timeline for it. Although it's much less common. It's less common for people to not understand that grief, but I want to explore today this, this human emotion that's often overlooked in society. And so this is, it's a, it's a It's an emotion, it's profound, and it is this misunderstood grief of involuntary childlessness, specifically disenfranchised grief. So disenfranchised grief is a type that occurs when somebody experiences a loss that is not openly acknowledged or socially validated. In the case of involuntary childlessness, it's common to find the grief dismissed or minimized. Um, too often people don't understand the depth of pain that comes with being childless when you don't want to be. The desire for parenthood is deeply ingrained in our society, in our culture as a whole. And then on top of it, our individual cultural communities have their own expectations and their own norms. Typically aligned with that expectation in society in general that you know, you're supposed to become a parent. Um. But sometimes individual communities and cultures, um, have even a more deeply ingrained expectation that comes with consequences, um, when it doesn't happen. So becoming a mom is traditionally viewed as a natural and the expected path in life. The reality is for most, not necessarily all, but for most, once that desire and the plan is made to become a mom, even if it's not something you're doing, you know, actively trying for in the moment, meaning you've thought about this, you now, you know, you want to be a mom, it's something, you know, you're going to do and try for in the future. But the minute you've decided, yeah, I do want to become a mom, you have a vision of the future. You've imagined that life with a child, children. And so when it doesn't happen, when that future doesn't turn out that way, it's a loss. But, that loss isn't recognized in general society. Again, death is, is recognized, is understood as a loss. But this thing, this not concrete, this abstract thing, this loss of a future, it's something that people don't get. Unlike other types of loss, the pain of involuntary childlessness doesn't come with rituals and support systems that accompany grief that comes in other situations. So one of my favorite quotes is from Laura Bush, and I have to pull it up to read it because it's a long quote. So, "The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence. For the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse, child, or friend, we have all manner of words and phrases. Some helpful, some not. Still we are conditioned to say something, even if it is only, I'm sorry for your loss. But for an absence, for someone who is never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and are denied them, those missing babies hover like silent, ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?" Friends and family often have no idea what to say. And sometimes they say hurtful things. Again, the get over it, um, one that really triggers me that I've been told and that just infuriates me is you can't miss what you never had. Really? Now think about it. We just dealt with a pandemic, with things being closed down, with events, celebrations, holidays canceled. And there were endless posts about the pain of missing these things. So, you can miss the big birthday celebration that you couldn't have that year, which in all likelihood you'll be able to celebrate at a later time, but you can't miss the child, children, that we long for and will never have. There won't be an opportunity to have these children. The birthday you couldn't have a party for, yeah, in all likelihood, you're going to celebrate again. Again, it's not to, I'm not trying to minimize or invalidate those senses of loss, because I truly got it when people were going through this. What I'm critical of is the people who missed out on those things and felt it as a loss, but at the same time tell us you can't miss what you never had. And it happens all the time. The pain of childlessness, of involuntary childlessness, is unique in part because of its chronic nature. Some other forms of grief, some, not all, you may eventually get some closure, if you will. For example, the big birthday celebration you missed because of COVID if you have a celebration later, you may feel closure. You may not because, yeah, maybe it was a big 40th birthday celebration party that you had planned and now you're having it, but it doesn't mean the same for you because it's not on your birthday. But there can be some sense of closure with that. Or maybe you're grieving because you lost a job you love. You may not, may find another one that you love even more. So the pain of childlessness, it doesn't go away. It's not like we experience a closure, Oh, okay, now this happened, so, you know, it makes it all better. It just doesn't. It's a chronic situation. The problem that this brings for this community as a large, and for the individuals is that when you, when you don't recognize this as a valid, as a real grief, it intensifies the emotional pain and the toll it takes on individuals and really in the community at large, because we as a group, it brings, um, anger, frustration again, because it's this misunderstanding of this group of people and what we're going through. So I just want to talk about a few reasons why this is problematic. The first is when other people don't, can't acknowledge the grief of involuntary childlessness, it can make anyone experiencing it feel like their emotions aren't warranted or invalid and then that invalidation compounds the sadness, the loneliness, the inadequacy. The second, when grief isn't understood or accepted by others, it's isolating. You feel like you are all alone in the world, have no one to turn to. The third, because our society equates motherhood with personal value, meaning you're valued only for being a mom, and because society equates motherhood with success, and fulfillment. Not being able to have a child can lead to feeling like you're a failure. Um, the failure to recognize the grief reinforces a whole lot of negative perceptions about ourselves. It reinforces, you know, leading this negative self view, that leads to a vicious cycle of self doubt, self loathing, and often despondency. The fourth problem with all of this, or reason why it's a problem, um, grief that goes unacknowledged grief that is minimized, or, not considered as valid, can contribute to depression. Can contribute to anxiety and low self-esteem. As Without validation, without support, it can be difficult to process the emotions and move forward. It's crucial for society to begin to recognize this grief, validate it, and not minimize it or its effects. Support and empathy are key. Navigating disenfranchised grief, like the grief that comes with involuntary childlessness, can be incredibly challenging. But, there are strategies and resources that can help you as an individual cope and find healing. That's really not the best word, in my opinion, I have to come up with something better at some point because we always think is healing is like a cut that healed and usually it's like you didn't think of it as it goes away. So maybe healing is the right word because there's always a scar so maybe healing is the right word because you can heal and still feel that loss, feel, still experience pain. In any words, in ways, now that I have worked through that, that the term that, yeah, healing is actually an okay term to use. I want to talk about some steps for you to navigate this, this grief, this disenfranchised grief in a way that is effective. So the first is acknowledge your grief, recognize and validate your emotions. Know that it's normal to feel a wide range of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, and sometimes even relief. Sometimes it's a relief to be able to say, okay, I'm not going to move forward with this next step in my fertility journey, infertility journey, or I have this partner who does not want to have children, I okay, I accept I'm staying with this partner and moving on without having a child together. So sometimes it's a relief even though it's still painful. It's a relief to be able to say it, to acknowledge that this is where I am. So allow yourself to experience and express the feelings without judging, without judging yourself, without judging the feelings. The second is find safe spaces where you can share your experiences and feelings and do it in a space where there's no judgment. And childless not by choice support groups. We're not judging each other. We're all traveling the same, maybe different paths, but we're all traveling the, the journey of involuntary childlessness. The third is learn more about disenfranchised grief and the the challenges, the unique challenges that come with it and with being involuntarily childless. Because when you can understand that your grief is complex, it can help you feel less alone because you recognize, hey, this is normal, and it gives you a validation for your experiences. The fourth is protect your well being, your emotional well being, set boundaries. Boundaries are healthy. So set boundaries with the people who may not understand or who will invalidate your grief. It is okay. It is. It's a necessity, actually. It's healthy to limit your exposure to those people or the situations that bring up these big triggers or invalidate what you're feeling. All feelings are valid. The fifth, practice self compassion. That's a really hard one, okay, because our journeys to this childless place have brought us to a lot of woulda coulda shouldas, um, belittling ourselves for the choices that we made, for the decisions we made that we think now were wrong. Who knows if they were or not? Who knows if you had made another choice if it would have turned out differently. Um, we criticize, for anyone who's gone through infertility and for infertility treatment, there's often this criticism of your body that it couldn't do, wouldn't do what it's supposed to do, you know, what we consider it to be, that's what it's supposed to do. And there's often shame towards your body, about your body, anger towards it. So, we're really good, especially women, are really good at beating ourselves up. Turning it around on ourselves and being kind and gentle to ourselves is something that takes practice. But remember healing takes time. It's okay to have setbacks along the way, the thing to do and how you learn to treat yourself with compassion, pretend you are your friend. What would you offer to your friend in a similar situation? You would be empathetic. You would give your friend understanding. Give yourself the same thing. And as always, consider professional help. Be it a therapist, a coach, a pastor to turn to, a rabbi, a priest, someone who will be free of judgment, um, but always consider professional help. Remember, everyone's journey with this grief is unique. There's, there's no one size fits all to dealing with it. There's no timeline. There's no deadline. Oh, I have to be over this by a certain time. No, you don't, and you probably, for most women, it's not something you get over. Um, So be patient with yourself. Give yourself grace. Support yourself. Don't internalize how others treat you and do the same thing to yourself. Make sure you're giving yourself a lot of self care, because healing and growth are possible when you allow all of that for yourself, when you give yourself that grace. So, my three takeaways for today, the first is, and this is actually, this first takeaway is for both those who are childless not by choice, and those who are listening because you know someone in this situation and you're trying to better understand. So that first takeaway is, yes, you can miss what you never had. And the second part of that is, for those of you who are childless not by choice, don't believe it when anybody tells you that. And the other part of that for those who know someone, don't ever say that to them, that you can't miss what you never had. So yeah, that first takeaway is you absolutely can miss what you never had. The second, society may not validate what you're going through. You don't have to internalize what others believe. That's on them. Recognize that your grief is real and valid. The third is there are ways to navigate this grief. You have to be ready. You have to be ready to move on with the grief. Um, But there are ways to navigate it when you are ready. And the first steps to take are to acknowledge your grief and practice self compassion. Alright 📍 , that's it for today and I will see you back next week.   I'm so glad you joined me. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed the episode. If you liked it, you can find more tips, insight, and support in a private space with other women who are like you, so they get you. You can do that by joining my free Facebook group, When Being Childless Isn't By Choice. Join us by clicking on the link in the show notes. You can also stay up to date with me on Instagram at Childless Path Onward and Facebook and YouTube at Path Onward. Thanks again and I'll see you next week.