Holiday Letter to Family and Friends:
I realize that sometimes it’s difficult for you to know what to say to a couple who has a fertility problem. Sometimes it seems like no matter what you do, it’s the wrong thing. I’d like to give you a few suggestions that may help you be the friend or relative I know you want to be, especially during the holidays:
- Be ready to listen. Couples facing infertility have a lot on their minds and may need someone to talk to. Sometimes a good ear helps people get things off their chests. A good listener can help others express their anxiety, anger, and guilt; or help people work out solutions to problems. Without offering any suggestions, your attentiveness and interest may provide the comfort and reassurance these couples need most.
- Don’t offer advice unless you are really well informed. Couples facing infertility read everything they can get their hands on. Sometimes it seems as though they know more about fertility treatment than their own doctors. So talking off the cuff about something you don’t really know about may be counterproductive.
- Be sensitive and don’t joke about infertility; attempts at levity may not be helpful. Joking about infertility is as inappropriate as joking about death at a funeral. Remember, couples facing infertility may have heightened sensitivity about this topic. Try to put yourself in their shoes whenever you insist they come to a baby shower, when you brag about your children’s achievements, or when you tell them about your friend’s daughter who got pregnant at fourteen.
- Be patient. This couple may be experiencing emotions running high and emotions running low with every treatment or monthly cycle. One week they may be high because a new treatment promises hope; the next week they may be in mourning for the child they lost (didn’t make) this month. They may be riding an exhausting emotional roller coaster. Try to understand and flow with their changes. And remember that when they want to be alone, they are not rejecting you. Don’t get your feelings hurt but do keep in touch.
- Show that you understand their difficulty. Say things like, “I know this is difficult for you,” or, “If there is anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate to ask.” If you aren’t sure about what they are experiencing, read some articles and books that discuss the emotional aspects of infertility.
- Be realistic and supportive of their decisions for or against fertility treatment. Once they’ve reached a difficult decision, don’t say, “Shouldn’t you see another doctor?”; “Are you sure that you really want to adopt?”; or, “I’d never consider doing that!” These couples usually weigh each issue very carefully. Don’t take their decisions lightly unless you have good reason to.
- Don’t put down their doctor or choices for treatment. Refrain from making comments like, “I never heard of a doctor doing that. Does he know what he’s doing?” or, “You don’t need surgery. What you need is a vacation.” Unless, from your reading or experience, you are certain that their physician is not using accepted methods, it’s often best to keep quiet about these topics.
- Be truthful. Don’t, for example, try to hide a pregnancy in the family. The truth does not hurt, provided you are not brutally frank.
- Let them know when you don’t know what to say. The couple will appreciate your honesty and will probably suggest how you can help them in that particular situation, even if it means remaining quiet. Admitting you’re at a loss for words will help establish honest communication.
- Be an advocate for couples facing infertility. Educate others and speak up for the couple’s decisions. Promote your local RESOLVE chapter. If you do not have a support group in your community, help form one.
- Understand that individuals and couples respond to fertility problems differently. Learn to recognize the normal emotional stages they are experiencing—denial, anger, depression, mourning, acceptance, and so forth. And realize that they may cycle through these stages with each new round of treatment and with each lost opportunity. Accept them at all emotional points throughout the process. Unless they remain in a single stage for a prolonged period of time, don’t become overly concerned.
- Above all, be there when they need you and show them that you care.
The holidays are an especially stressful time for couples who are experiencing infertility. Don’t underestimate how important you and your relationship are to this couple. Your understanding and support can make a significant difference during this difficult period.
Mark Perloe M.D.
Shady Grove Fertility Atlanta
Editors Note: This post was originally published in December 2018.