Given the fact that one in eight couples experiences infertility, if you haven’t been on the receiving end of insensitive comments, you’ve struggled to find the right words to say to a friend who has been trying to conceive for months or even years. There are, in fact, several important ways you can support a friend with infertility.
Acknowledge the loss
Abby MacDonald, LICSW, an infertility specialist, says a vital part of helping a friend with infertility is understanding that they’re grieving a loss. While it may not be as concrete as a miscarriage or a death, the intangible losses are many, including privacy, autonomy and the loss of the narrative where pregnancy just naturally happens. She may also be struggling to reconcile her relationship with her own body, which she perceives as having failed her. Even if you’re not sure what to say, your friend will appreciate your sensitivity to the fact that she’s grieving.
Remember it’s not about you
Particularly if infertility is something you haven’t personally experienced, it is not perceived as helpful when you project your own feelings on the situation. Sharing the fact that you would never be willing to go through in vitro fertilization (IVF) or would worry about the possibility of multiples is not helpful. As my friend said, “It’s personal.”
Unless you’ve been there, avoid giving advice
If you take nothing else from this article, take this: Friends don’t tell friends who are dealing with infertility to just have a bottle of wine and relax. One woman I interviewed recalled feeling insulted by a friend’s suggestion that she supplement IVF with herbs. “The implication is “You could do more.” On the other hand, advice from someone who has been through it is comforting.
Leave the wise sayings to Hallmark
Perhaps even less helpful than advice from the uninitiated are their theories on why this is happening. Many women told me they did not appreciate being told, “If it’s meant to be, it will be.”
Let Hallmark handle the “encouraging” remarks.
All you need to do is be there if your friend wants to talk.
Giving someone space to talk (or not talk) is among the most powerful gifts you have to offer. It is key to simply listen and offer reflections based on what your friend says. Give your friend a chance to talk about her feelings, rather than filling any silence with a stock line about hope or positive thinking.
Be curious (but not nosy)
For a woman dealing with infertility, nothing is more awkward or painful than having an acquaintance put a hand on her belly and ask why she’s not pregnant yet when she’s privately tortured over that very same question. But if your friend has been open with you about her struggles, make sure she knows you want to support her, even if you’re not sure how.
Offer genuine support
Avoid offering vague support such as “Let me know if you need anything.” If you’re compelled to offer more than a listening ear (which is plenty), offer something specific:
-call or text just to say you are thinking of them
-reach out to get dinner or a drink
-send a copy of the book “When Things Fall Apart”
by Pema Chödrön
-give a pass when it comes to attending baby showers or kids’ birthday parties
-educate yourself on infertility. (The nonprofit Resolve offers support, advocates, educates and develops community around the challenges to create a family.)
Supporting a friend through infertility is showing up, listening and being sensitive. It’s saying, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
Pam Moore is an author, body positive health coach, occupational therapist and certified personal trainer who helps women push through fear to become their best selves. Visit pam-moore.com.