“You can feel excited and I can grieve, but I think we will both be better if we can do both together.”
As a marriage and family therapist, I am trained to read facial expressions. I learned early in my career that you can understand just as much, if not more, information from a person’s face than you can from their words. Upon arriving to my friend’s house for lunch, I read anxiety on her face before she uttered a word about her news.
We waded into our time together, catching up on the happenings of our week. We had only begun to sit down to eat when she told me that she had some news. “I’m pregnant, “ she said with tears in her eyes and about as much enthusiasm as one would have anticipating a root canal. She was excited, but she had walked each of my five miscarriages and every negative pregnancy test with me, and she was trying to protect me from her joy, fearing that it would cause me more pain.
She wasn’t completely wrong. My internal response was equal parts happiness for her and devastation for myself. Against all logic, it felt like a win for my friend was another loss for me. Though I loved her and knew she loved and cared for me, her news felt like an exclamation point on my loneliness. Despite her compassion, it was difficult to imagine that she could understand.
Sitting with my uneaten salad in front of me, I found myself fighting the urge to withdraw and become invulnerable in the relationship and conversation by pretending and performing—acting like I thought I should and saying things I imagined she would want to hear. As a therapist, countless individuals had let me into their story. Now, I was struggling to let someone—even one of my dearest friends—into my own.
The experience of infertility and pregnancy loss is often accompanied by a sense of isolation. Symptoms surrounding fertility struggles are mostly invisible so obvious channels of compassion, empathy, and connection around vulnerability can be difficult to obtain from others, leaving us feeling alone and like we don’t belong. Also, it is common to unintentionally be removed from our social networks as friends and peers advance to the life stage of having young children and begin to organize activities and conversation around parenting, leaving the rest of us feeling as though we’ve been left on the outside with our nose pressed up against the glass. Self-protection feels like the prudent response.
But the truth is, choosing to withdraw by becoming invulnerable in our relationships guarantees the very loneliness and lack of belonging we fear. Certainly, there is risk involved with deep relationships. But playing it safe only keeps us dangerously distant from what is truly good. Against our protective instincts, the two most helpful aids in the midst of pain we cannot control are agency and connection.
While there are a multitude of factors we cannot control when it comes to infertility and pregnancy loss, we are not completely helpless. We are empowered to make choices. And one of the most important choices we can make is to connect with people who are loving and safe. Just because a loved one has not endured the same pain, doesn’t mean they don’t know their own pain or that they can’t connect with our particularly brand of suffering. Knowing pain is a part of being human.
Despite the sting of my friend’s news, the mere thought of not being in the thick of the details of this joy in her life was far more painful. I walked over to her side of the table, hugged her tight, and said, “You can feel excited and I can grieve, but I think we will both be better if we can do both together.” And that’s exactly what we did. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t always go perfectly, but I got giddy over all things pink alongside her, and she cried with each passing month of waiting with me. Our need for relationship is a part of being human too.
The decision to connect with others in our pain has many faces. It looks like talking honestly about feelings we were taught not to discuss. It looks like going first in sharing our stories, trusting that this invites other people to share their own. It looks like asking for help and knowing that we are no less strong or less worthy because we need it. And it looks like training our eyes to see what is good in imperfect people who are doing their best to offer comfort in the best way they know how.
There are many routes we can take around our pain. But the only way through our pain is together.
Nicole Zasowski is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of From Lost to Found: Giving Up What You Think You Want For What Will Set You Free. As an old soul who wears her heart proudly on her sleeve, she enjoys writing and speaking on topics that merge her professional knowledge and personal experience. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two young boys. Nicole would love to connect with you online: www.nicolezasowski.com.