How to Confidently Comfort Couples Living with Infertility
by Dana Nygaard, LPC
Alan and Jenny’s Story
Alan stood still when he recognized the sound of his wife quietly crying in one of the upstairs bedrooms of his parent’s home. He felt sick to his stomach when he realized his beloved must be suffering alone with the sorrow of their infertility. Just that morning their hopes had been dashed yet again and the visit to his parent’s house was meant to be a distraction. Alan shook himself out of his reverie and found his way to the room where his wife was weeping. Unobtrusively he nudged the door open but stopped dead in his tracks, as he marveled at the sight before his eyes. Jenny was not alone after all but was surrounded on the queen-size bed by the women of his family. They silently wept alongside her sharing in her grief.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
The reality of Infertility
Infertility is a growing problem in the United States; research studies show that 1 in 8 couples struggles for a year or more to get pregnant. There are various causes, both male and female, but the outcome is the same: enduring months and years of childlessness. The issue provokes intense pain and suffering for couples experiencing infertility, ranging from miscarriages, stillbirths, and the inability to conceive. Each loss may generate a mixture of grief, depression, anxiety, relationship struggles, identity crises, health issues and financial difficulties. Their trials can lead to overwhelming shame and isolation.
“Infertility is a lonely disease. It is a feeling of loss before there’s ever been a found.” (Dr. Christopher Yancey, OBGYN)
Some Catholic insights on infertility
The first words God spoke to his creations, Adam and Eve, were in the form of a blessing - “Be fertile and multiply.” (Genesis 1:28). Children are a true blessing to married life, so it is honorable and wise to seek ways of overcoming infertility. Scripture is laden with narratives of women who experienced infertility, from the account of Rebekah in Genesis 25:20 to Rachel in Genesis 30. In 1 Samuel 1:1-28 we are introduced to the story of Elkanah and Hannah. Elkanah said to his barren wife, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why are you not eating? Why are you so miserable? Am I not better than ten sons?” The agony Hannah endured at not being able to have a child could not be abated by her husband’s love. Each of these accounts were crucial to God’s plan in salvation history. Keeping in mind that God loves the spouses more so than they love each other.
God clearly states that the begetting of children is the primary purpose of marriage. His generosity was evident when He made Adam and Eve co-creators in bringing forth life. One might wonder why God does not bless every married couple to fulfill his command to “Be fertile and multiply.” God is good and is not punishing couples with infertility problems. Rather in his infinite wisdom he permits certain sufferings to enter the lives of his children. The purpose in part is to have them rely upon him in all circumstances.
In 1987 the Church document Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life) states, “the desire for a child is natural: it expresses the vocation to fatherhood and motherhood inscribed in conjugal love. This desire can be even stronger if the couple is affected by sterility which appears incurable”. The document further reads, “Sterility is certainly a difficult trial. The community of believers is called to shed light upon and support the suffering of those who are unable to fulfill their legitimate aspiration to motherhood and fatherhood. Spouses who find themselves in this sad situation are called to find in it an opportunity for sharing in a particular way in the Lord’s Cross, the source of spiritual fruitfulness. Sterile couples must not forget that even when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not for this reason lose its value. Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) states, “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift” (Children as a Gift). The Church acknowledges the wanting of a child as a legitimate desire and understands the heartache for couples who struggle with infertility. St. Josemaria Escriva shared his wisdom on the matter, “God in his providence has two ways of blessing marriages: one by giving them children; and the other, sometimes, because he loves them so much, by not giving them children. I don’t know which is the better blessing.”
At the very heart of Catholic tradition there is a template for addressing the needs of souls - The 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy. These acts of compassion are those by which we aid our neighbors with their emotional and spiritual needs:
Counseling the doubtful
Instructing the ignorant
Admonishing the sinner
Comforting the afflicted
Bearing wrongs patiently
Praying for the living and the dead
The USCCB says, “Just as Jesus attended to the spiritual well-being of those he ministered to, these Spiritual Works of Mercy guide us to help our neighbor in their spiritual needs.” For the purpose of this blog post we will focus on the fourth of the seven: comfort the afflicted.
Thoughtful ways to show support
Suffering is a topic that often brings out fear amidst uncomfortable feelings. It is undoubtedly tough to witness the deep and profound pain infertile couples experience. What lies within your purview is to lovingly journey alongside them. Consoling a couple experiencing deep sorrow over infertility is a tender opportunity to demonstrate compassion. The Latin roots of the word compassion are “cum” (with) and “passio” (suffering). To feel compassion for someone is “to suffer with” that individual. While words alone cannot begin to fill the void they feel, it is possible to help them carry their cross as Simon of Cyrene did for Christ as he walked to his death down the Via Dolorosa.
When a friend or family member shares their struggle of infertility, they are expressing their trust in you. In return they are looking for support and comfort. The Christian response is to listen without judgement. The USCCB set forth, “Be open to listening and comforting those who are dealing with grief. Even if we aren’t sure of the right words to say, our presence can make a big difference.” Deep pain requires few words.
Avoid foot-in-mouth syndrome
“Those who guard mouth and tongue guard themselves from trouble.” (Proverbs 21:23) Without meaning to, people sometimes misstep when speaking with someone who has miscarried or is having difficulty becoming pregnant. Guarding one’s tongue can be a challenge especially when it comes to a sensitive topic like infertility. An insensitive faux pas may be viewed by the receiver as more than a passing annoyance. In all likelihood a couple experiencing infertility regularly receives an onslaught of insensitive comments from the people in their lives. Here are some helpful tips on what to AVOID:
Sentences that begin with, “At least”. (At least you won’t get stretch marks.)
Remarks that begin with, “Just”. (Just enjoy your freedom.)
Offering unsolicited advice. (You should relax and let it happen naturally.)
Avoid making crude jokes. (I volunteer my services as the sperm donor!)
Refrain from lamenting about parenthood. (One night with our kids would cure you of wanting your own.)
Hold off from grumbling about pregnancy. (I wouldn’t wish pregnancy on my worst enemy.)
Steer clear of subjecting them to your political viewpoints on having children. (The world is overpopulated and it’s selfish to want your own child.)
Avoid the temptation to suggest adoption. (There are plenty of kids to adopt.)
Forgo prying into the cause(s) of their infertility. (Why can’t you get pregnant?)
Bypass placing blame. (Whose fault, is it?)
Do not create supposed causes of the problem. (You know you would be pregnant if you weren’t so high-strung.)
Do not assume you know how they are feeling. (I know just how you feel.)
Avoid suggesting medical treatments. (Have you tried the ‘X, Y, and Z’ treatment?)
Hold back on publicly announcing your pregnancy without giving them advance notice so they can process their feelings privately. (Guess who’s having a baby?! We are!)
Resist telling them to get a dog as a replacement for a child. (Get a dog, they're cheaper than a kid.)
Refrain from asking intrusive questions about their sex life. (Are you pregnant yet?)
Do not assume they will attend child-related events. (You absolutely must come to my baby shower, and I won’t take no for an answer.)
Avoid the temptation to ignore their infertility experience. (I am sure they have plenty of people checking on them.)
Abstain from presuming to speak for God. (This is God’s will.)
Don’t offer platitudes. (God never gives us more than we can handle.)
The above examples run the gamut from shaming, insulting, patronizing, minimizing, boorish, intrusive to downright rude. In Matthew 12:36 we are cautioned as Christians to guard our mouths and souls, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak.” If you are not sure what to say, then it is better to say nothing at all. Speak instead with gestures and smile and offer a hug. Be patient, kind and gentle. When you stand in the gap for your suffering loved ones, you are the face of Christ.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:4)
Sacrifice by showing support
To meet someone where they are and not where you expect them to be is a priceless gift. They need your patience as they travail through their ever-changing grief. Such a challenge on your part requires humility, charity, and dying to self.
A good start is to overcome any fear that bringing up their loss will remind them of their pain. The truth is the loss is never far from their minds. Be brave and offer a listening ear if they want to talk about their infertility journey. Be sure to follow their lead, without trying to steer the conversation in a specific direction. Putting aside your own need to espouse uninvited advice or exert control. Ask what you can do for them while recognizing that their needs may change from one day to the next. Explore the following list of charitable acts:
Offer to drive or accompany them to medical appointments.
Gift them with a meal or restaurant gift card. They may be too exhausted to cook after attending medical appointments and procedures.
Provide a source of normalcy or distraction by inviting them over for some fun fellowship. Infertile couples can be overlooked since they don’t fit into the singles or married-with-children crowds.
Send a gift such as flowers, tickets to a local event, or a date night gift basket to show your love and give them a much-needed emotional boost.
If they named their miscarried baby, then your use of the chosen name will honor the child and parents.
Extend invitations without expectations of their participation.
Provide outreach to the husband too, because infertility impacts both spouses, not just the wife.
Consider these helpful phrases:
I’m so sorry to hear that.
That sounds so hard. What can I do to help?
I’m available if you want to talk about it.
I’m here to listen and help when you need me.
I wish I had the perfect words to help ease your pain.
I am praying for you.
I’m thinking of you (on Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day).
Pray and then pray some more
The most important gift we can bestow upon someone is to intercede on their behalf for their prayer intentions. St. Paul articulated this important concept in three simple words, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It is music to the ears when someone says, “You’re in my prayers” and means it. You may choose to ask the Holy Spirit to lead you in a spontaneous prayer or rely on comfortable, familiar prayers like the Our Father or Hail Mary. Perhaps you will feel led to intercede with this prayer that I recently composed:
You know the deep desire of (names) for a child.
Please remove any obstacles that may be blocking their ability to conceive and bring a child to full-term.
My heartfelt prayer is that you bestow upon them the miracle of life.
Lord, please abundantly bless them with strength, fortitude, wisdom, courage, joy, and peace.
Consider gifting your loved ones with a “spiritual bouquet” - an arrangement of spiritual roses, namely a gift of prayers, alms, and sacrifices pledged in writing and offered to God for their intentions. Here are some sample messages to include in a card:
I (name) have offered up a spiritual bouquet of a rosary and novena to St. Gerard for you and your intentions.
A spiritual bouquet in your honor is offered up for you and your intentions: receiving Communion twice a week and making First Fridays for the next three months.
I (name) have offered three Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Memorares as a spiritual bouquet for your intentions.
Dana Nygaard, LPC is the author of 365 Dates to Renew Your Christian Marriage: Increasing Your Emotional Intimacy One Question at a Time (Catholic Edition) which you can buy here or Amazon.