Coping with Grief at the Holidays


The holiday season can be a difficult time for couples who have faced challenges in their journey to start a family, whether that means they are unable to get pregnant, or they have suffered the loss of a pregnancy. It is normal to feel a heightened sense of emptiness and grief when you’re inundated with all the joyful faces of kids and families in movies, on TV and at the malls this time of year.

For many couples, grief is a natural byproduct of their infertility journey. When you hope for a pregnancy during a cycle of treatment and are disappointed, or when you experience the joy of conceiving a child only to lose the baby a few weeks later, you inevitably feel profound loss. With every unsuccessful treatment or miscarriage, your losses multiply and the grief can become overwhelming.

We understand, and we want you to know that the most important step in coping with grief in a healthy way is simply to recognize it and acknowledge it. Holding onto grief only makes us feel worse, so it is essential to process emotions related to grief in order to release them.

Grief is a part of life

When a woman has a miscarriage, her hormones “go crazy,” which may intensify her emotional reactions. Hormonal fluctuations may also occur during a treatment cycle as a result of fertility medications. This roller-coaster of emotions would be hard for anyone to deal with, but for women who are usually very well composed, the feeling of “losing control” can be especially distressing.

Whether you have been unable to get pregnant naturally or through assistive reproductive technologies like IVF, give yourself permission to process the loss (lack of conception) just like you would any other loss in your life. The fact that there has not technically been a death doesn’t lessen your pain.

Give yourself a break. What you are feeling is a normal part of your journey to start a family. Don’t add guilt on top of grief by beating yourself up. When you lose a baby, it’s OK to feel sad no matter how far along you were in your pregnancy when the miscarriage occurred. Just because you did not see your belly expand or feel the baby kick does not make the experience less valid, or less real.

Also, give yourself time. It may take several months for you to process your feelings, but you will eventually feel better. Be prepared for plenty of ups and downs — some days you’ll feel great, and other days you’ll feel down again. Be aware of “triggers” such as seeing a baby stroller or a pregnant woman, or hearing the news that one of your friends is expecting. Being sensitive to these triggers, especially right after a loss, is completely normal.

Also, remember that grief is very personal, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to work through your feelings. What is right for one person may not work for another. Some of the ways grief can manifest include anger, guilt, sadness, fatigue, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, shame, disbelief or numbness. One person may experience all of these, while others may only experience a few.

In addition, understand that men and women process grief differently. While a woman might openly share her emotions and shed tears, a man may not show his grief on the outside. He may not use words to describe his feelings, and he may need to stay busy with projects that do not appear to relate to his loss. Couples should try to practice loving tolerance toward each other and respect each other’s journey during this time.

Learning to cope

While each person’s grief experience is unique, mental health professionals recommend some proven ways to work through your feelings of loss. Here are a few.

Try journaling. Writing down your thoughts and emotions as they happen can help you process them. Journaling is also a great way to express feelings that you may not feel comfortable sharing with others.

Another exercise that might be helpful is writing a letter to the baby you hoped for, or the baby you lost. You can also use your hands to get creative. Paint, sculpt, make jewelry, bake or cook. Creative outlets often help people work through their grief by offering therapeutic action.

Specifically for the holidays, you might make an ornament or other holiday decoration that commemorates the child you lost, or the baby you hope to have. These activities can allow you to tangibly acknowledge this part of your journey, provide a much-needed catharsis and help you to move forward.

A nonlinear path

Scientist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief that everyone who experiences loss goes through. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With infertility, the stages may not be linear, and you may oscillate among each stage more than once.

For example, you may experience denial each time you see negative results of a pregnancy test after a fertility treatment. Or you may “bargain” by going through different rituals each time you undergo a treatment, to try to manipulate the results.

It goes without saying that meeting with a licensed therapist, counselor or psychological with experience related to infertility or miscarriage can be extremely beneficial in coping with this distinctive kind of grief. There are also many support groups and online forums where you can find encouragement from others coping with infertility and pregnancy loss. One such group is offered in Louisville by RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association. Visit Resolve.org for details.

We encourage to be kind and gentle with yourself this holiday season as you work through your feelings of loss. Remember, you are not alone.