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Learning that the despair that I was feeling around my childlessness was GRIEF was the beginning of my healing. That was seven years ago, and I’ve been in a good place with my childlessness for five years now – in fact, I’m pretty sure I feel as at peace with my childlessness now as if I had chosen it – although I still have my ‘griefy moments’ – usually when a new aspect of my loss that I hadn’t been aware of before comes into view and my heart stings as I realise, “Oh, I don’t get to experience that either…”
Through creating and leading my healing weekend for childless women, The Reignite Weekend, working with women online and in person in my Plan B Mentorship Programmes, supporting thousands of women online in our Private Online Community and through our global network of GW Meetups I’ve had the great privilege of companioning many other women with their childless grief. And so it’s not only what I’ve learned from my own grief (which has been the most transformative experience of my life!) that I feel able to share with you, but also some of what I’ve learned from others.
In this 1 hour webinar (well, we go over a little bit to answer listeners questions) I explore the topic of the grief of childlessness, and am then joined on the call by Yvonne John and Lauren de Vere, both women who have taken their grief journey with myself and Gateway Women and are now in a good place. They’ve also trained with me as GW facilitators and are two of the wonderful women who now lead my Reignite Weekends in the UK.
Thank you to Cat & Heather at More to Life for creating this year’s webinar series – there are a few more live ones still to come and you can also listen to the recordings of the previous webinars. Click here for more info on the series.
On this call, I read a passage from my book: Living the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to Your Plan B for a Meaningful and Fulfilling Life without Children which starts at page 80. It’s from Chapter 4, which is all about the grief of childlessness, how to understand it, and how to help yourself through it. A lot of women have emailed me asking for that passage, so here it is, it’s called ‘Grief is Good’:
“Grief is Good”
A passage adapted from ‘Living the Life Unexpected’ (2016, Bluebird, PanMacmillan) by Jody Day
Chapter 4, page 80
In Western culture, we’ve become fairly hopeless at coping with grief, with loss. We fail to recognise its power, its meaning and its healing and run from it as if it were death itself. Yet grief is the emotional and psychological process that enables us to deal with loss. Avoiding it makes us emotionally stuck, unable to cope with life, unable to move forward.
Becoming aware of the possibility that we may not have children, that we may not have the family of our dreams, is a heartbreaking loss. Unlike many of the other losses we may have experienced, the end of fertility or the possibility of bearing a biological child is an irrevocable and definite loss. It’s a kind of psychological death and it’s profound. Facing up to it changes us forever.
What we, and others, often fail to realise is the depth and reach of our loss: that not only will we never have children, but we will never create our own family. We will never watch them grow up, never throw children’s birthday parties, never take that ‘first day at school’ photo, never teach them to ride a bike. We’ll never see them graduate, never see them maybe get married and have their own children. We’ll never get a chance to heal the wounds of our own childhood by doing things differently with our children. We’ll never be grandmothers and never give the gift of grandchildren to our parents. We’ll never be the mother of our partner’s children and hold that precious place in their heart. We’ll never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our siblings and watch our children play together. We’ll never be part of the community of mothers, never be considered a ‘real’ woman. And when we die, there is no one to leave our stuff to, and no one to take our lifetime’s learnings into the next generation.
If you take the time to think about it all in one go, which is more than most of us are ever likely to do because of the breathtaking amount of pain involved, it’s a testament to our strength that we’re still standing at all.
And yet, because the loss of our future children is an invisible loss, we often fail to recognise ourselves that what we are experiencing is grief, and others don’t seem to have a clue what depth of pain and distress we are in. Some women are in such pain that they find themselves having suicidal fantasies. I did. It’s not that I wanted to die, I just didn’t want to live the rest of my life with this level of pain.
If we miscarry, fail to conceive or never have the opportunity to try for a baby, our loss can remain invisible and unrecognised by others; it’s known as ‘disenfranchised grief’ because it’s grief that our society does not recognise and which consequently many of us feel shame for experiencing, if we allow ourselves to experience it at all.[i] And because our loss isn’t recognised and reflected back to us with kindness and empathy we often give up seeking understanding from others and may instead learn to block out our pain with all kinds of self-medication, including drinking too much, overeating, overworking or becoming a sort of recluse. In doing so, we may remain stuck in a quagmire of unprocessed grief for years.
If we had lost a living family by some tragic event, we would never expect ourselves to ‘get over it’. Yet we, and others, expect those of us who are childless to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, count our blessings and get on with things. No wonder so many of us are struggling. The treatment we currently receive is not just neglectful, it’s downright cruel. And sadly, knowing no better, many of us treat ourselves in exactly the same way.
I’ve come to understand grief as a form of love because it’s created by love and it’s a loving energy that heals us so that we can love life again. I like to imagine the moon, with its bright face towards us reflecting the sun as ‘love’ and the dark side of the moon, in shadow, representing ‘grief’. We need to go through the whole cycle in order for the sun to come out in our lives again. There’s no other way round. We either stay in the dark or go through the dark and back out into the light again . . .
Grief heals us, but we cannot do it alone. We cannot ‘wait it out’. Time does not heal; grieving heals. But it cannot heal until it is witnessed and held jointly, with great tenderness, in the heart and soul of another. Just like love.
Just as one of the most painful experiences of love is ‘unrequited love’, I think that disenfranchised grief is a form of ‘unrequited grief’ – a grief that is not allowed to be expressed, not allowed to be in a relationship. But grief cannot move into its active state, ‘grieving’, without a relationship because grief is a dialogue, not a monologue. And until we find a place to have that dialogue, either face to face, online or with a skilled therapist, it stays wedged in our hearts like a splinter. And it festers as it waits, infecting our life and our soul with sadness. It is vital that as childless women we give ourselves permission to grieve our losses and, in doing so, allow the grieving process to heal our hearts. Without grieving, we’re stuck fast. And without empathetic company with whom to do our grief work, we can stay stuck for a very long time indeed. It’s not as gloomy as it sounds because there’s more to grief than sadness, and there’s often as much laughter as tears. And the tears are healing ones. After all, not every culture is as nervous about grief as we are; in the Mayan tradition, grief is considered the highest form of praise, and crying as a form of prayer.