Childless Suffer ‘Disenfranchised Grief’

On a recent podcast, UK childlessness guru Jody Day and host Kathy Seppi talked about “disenfranchised grief.” We have talked a lot about grief here at Childless by Marriage, but something clicked in me when I heard that.

What is disenfranchised grief? Grief researcher Ken Doka defined it as “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

Let me put it another way. You have suffered a loss, such as the chance to have children, but other people just don’t get why you’re hurting or acknowledge your right to grieve.

Seppi, whose Chasing Creation podcast focuses on infertility, said disenfranchised grief is “the feeling you have to prove how much it hurts.”

Jody Day, who is also a psychologist, added, “We want people to see our pain.” Grief changes a person, she says. Our lives might look completely the same from the outside, but grief changes how we feel about it from the inside.

At a site called whatsyourgrief.com, Litsa Williams lists 64 situations where people tend not to acknowledge the right to grieve. They include death of an ex, moving to a new place, losing a friend, and death of a dream. Losing the family you had expected to have certainly fits on that list of things we grieve but other people don’t understand why.

Not long ago, I sang at a funeral for my friend’s husband. I found myself in tears. Not only was I sad for her and missing her husband, who was also my friend, but I felt my own losses–my father, my mother, my husband. But most strongly, as I watched my friend’s adult daughter holding onto her, taking care of her, I kept thinking who will be there for me? Once again, I grieved the loss of the children I never had.

The grief is there. I will always be different from all those people at the funeral who have children. It’s not something I could speak of, certainly not that day, and not something that anyone would have thought about when they saw me trying to wipe away tears around my COVID mask.

I don’t look bereaved. You can’t tell from the outside. I’ve got a pretty good life. But still, that thing is there. Aug. 21, on the first anniversary of my father’s death, I posted a picture of him with me and my brother as babies on Facebook. No one will ever post a picture like that of me, and that hurts.

Childless grief is tricky. If you had a baby who died, you could hold a funeral. You could maybe dress in black and avoid society for a while. But grieving for something that never existed, for the lack of something you wanted with all your heart? People will say buck up, you’ve got a good life, look at all the freedom you have and all the money you’ll save. Right?

If you burst into tears at the office . . . well, you feel like you can’t. You mustn’t. And yet we do want people to see that we’re hurting and to offer comfort. Just like when we were little kids and skinned our knees, we want someone to hug us and bandage our wounds, to acknowledge that we are hurt.

With childlessness, it’s like we didn’t get that doll we saw on the TV commercial; what right do we have to cry and carry on? We want to be held. We want someone to stop the bleeding. We want someone to say we didn’t realize how much it hurt. Here is your doll. Now wash your face and we’ll go get ice cream cones. Isn’t that what we want? Of course it is.

You know what? I think it’s okay to express our grief right out loud. I wanted to have a baby. My heart hurts because I never did. Will you hold me and help me feel better? Let’s say it out loud.

COVID be damned, I want to hug all of you.

Please share your thoughts.

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Do you want to tell your story at the Childless by Marriage blog? I’m looking for personal stories, 500-750 words long, that fit our childless-by-marriage theme. You could write about infertility, second marriages, partners who don’t want children, stepchildren, feeling left out when everyone around you has kids, fear of being childless in old age, birth control, and other related issues. Tell us how you how you came to be childless “by marriage” and how it has affected your life. Or you could write about someone else. We love stories about successful childless women. We do not want to hear about your lovely relationship with your children or how happy you are to be childfree. Not all submissions will be accepted, and all are subject to editing. If interested, email me at sufalick@gmail.com.

When You Can’t Bear the Childless Grief Alone

This is a touchy subject, one that may make you reach for the mouse to close this blog, but please don’t do it yet. Stay with me for a few paragraphs.
At least once a week, I get a comment to this blog that leads me to cautiously, timidly suggest that maybe the writer might benefit from seeking counseling. I am not implying that they are crazy, but I am saying it might help to talk to a professional psychologist, psychiatrist or family counselor. People are very sensitive about this, so I hesitate to say it, but sometimes I feel I have to. These commenters say things like “I see no reason for living” or “I just can’t go on” or “I can’t remember the last time I felt happy.” These are red flags that a person may be suffering from depression.
There’s no shame in struggling to deal with grief or confusion over facing the possibility–or the certainty–of being childless. It hurts. It’s a loss, just as much as if someone had died. If you didn’t feel sad, that would be unusual. If it’s weighing you down to the point where you can’t get up in the morning day after day, not just once in a while, maybe you could benefit from finding an impartial professional to talk to.
I’ve been in counseling off and on over the years. The first time, I was coming out of an abusive relationship and found myself too depressed to function. I had given my heart and soul to this man, and he trampled all over it. Having no money, I called the county mental health department and got an appointment with a counselor. That first session, this kind woman made me feel so much better simply by listening to what I’d been through and letting me know it was not my fault. She took the burden off my shoulders. Many years later, a wise counselor helped me work through my husband’s illness and death. Believe me when I say it’s okay to get help.
Many readers here are struggling to figure out what to do. They are often in a situation where their partners are refusing to have children or there’s a medical problem, and they don’t know whether to leave that person or stay and accept that they’ll never have kids. This is a horrible choice in which no one will come out happy. You could talk to your parents, your siblings, your friends, or your co-workers, but they’re all biased. Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who can see all sides of the problem, who will let you say anything you want in complete confidentiality, and help you work through your decisions.
There are various kinds of counselors. Psychiatrists are doctors who are licensed to dispense medication. Psychologists are PhDs trained in mental health and counseling. Licensed clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists have master’s degrees and clinical training in counseling. I see a psychiatric nurse practitioner who not only can prescribe meds but also does hypnosis, biofeedback, art therapy and many other techniques. She also gives good hugs. Most insurances cover psychiatric care to some extent. I have never paid more than a minimal co-pay. Ask your primary care doctor for a referral. There are also government agencies and groups such as Catholic Charities that can help if money is a problem. It’s a hard phone call to make, but you can do it.
This is a huge subject for which I have barely touched the surface. Here are links to more information. “Finding a Therapist Who Can Help You Heal”  provides solid information about what therapy is and the types available. “Symptoms of Depression” from WebMD will help you understand the difference between ordinary sadness and depression.
What do you think about all this? I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.