The healing power of grief

The Journal of Fertility Counselling, the regular outlet of the British Infertility Counselling Association arrived this week.  It’s a bit of an odd publication, currently looking a bit thin and not well laid out but often containing thoughtful and thought-provoking articles.  Hopefully the look of the mag will improve once the Editorship has been taken over by journalist, writer and mum to two IVF conceived children, Kate Brian.  Incidentally Kate’s occasional blog Fertility Matters is always worth a read

The article that had me absorbed at lunchtime today was called An Invisible Loss: Grief’s Healing Power by Odile van Eck a therapist from the Netherlands.  The invisible loss refers to the inability to conceive – to lose something you have never had, an experience that Odile has been through herself and chosen to make her life’s work understanding.  Her thesis, briefly, is that it is only by going through the stages of grief, allowing the painful feelings to be really felt rather than avoided, that integration, acceptance and the possibility of living a full life without children is possible.  Acceptance is often seen as a kind of resignation or submission to something but Odile sees this as leading to false expectations.  She believes that this attitude can leave people feeling disappointed years later when some of these feelings arise again – perhaps provoked by a particular situation or memory – and lead them to believe that they are not yet ‘done’ with feelings related to childlessness.  Instead Odile sees acceptance not as a final stage but as an attitude to life where a woman accepts the reality of the situation and expects that from time to time these feelings will be stirred again.  From such a place it is possible to explore all experiences and feelings with openness,  curiosity and a sense of calm, rather than pushing feelings away as belonging to a painful past.

Although Odile is writing about childlessness, infertility resolved or circumvented via donor conception also involves considerable loss and the need to grieve.  Men and women grieve for their perceived loss of womenliness or masculinity in not being able to make a baby with a much loved partner.  Some donor conceived adults grieve for the lack of genetic connection to both parents and what they see as the artificial severing of the natural parental connection.

DCNetwork has always encouraged would-be parents to grieve the child they could not have together before going on to create the child they may be able to have using donated eggs or sperm.  There is some evidence if one of the partners has not been able to feel the pain of infertility and then come to a place where he or she can accept the reality of the situation, then couple relationship breakdown is more likely and/or difficulties with bonding with the child occur.  It is notable that amongst donor conceived adults registered with UK Donor Link many have divorced parents.  This is not surprising given the climate of secrecy in UK clinics when these adults were conceived.  There was certainly no encouragement or support for men to face their fertility difficulties.  More likely they would be encouraged to ‘go home, make love and forget you came here today’.

I also personally recognise the re-surfacing of feelings of sadness and loss, even many years later and despite loving to distraction the children Walter and I have been able to have by sperm donation.

The idea that pain can be productive and lead to personal growth and healing does not fit well in a modern, quick fix society.  Counsellors understand it’s power and value and that is one of the reasons why it is vital that high quality counselling is available in all fertility clinics.  Thank you Odile for giving me some language to explain the meaning of acceptance and why mixed feelings are not only OK but healthy.


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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