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.

The coldest reaction to childless grief

“Get over it.” That’s what his girlfriend said when this man who wrote to me told her he’d have a hard time dealing with not having children. They were talking about marriage. She had been married before and had a daughter. Now 45, she wasn’t interested in trying for another. But he was younger and still wanted kids. He wanted her to understand that he would need a lot of moral support if he never became a father. She said, “get over it.” 

As far as I know, they’re still together, but now he’s worried about her attitude.

You don’t just “get over” losing your chance to have children. We all need to find a way to live with it, to keep it from ruining all that is good in our lives, but that feeling of something missing does not just disappear. It’s a bit like the feeling we have when someone we love dies. As the priest told my father, brother and me before my mother’s funeral, there’s a wound in our hearts that will never completely heal. Ten years later, I know it’s still there.

I have heard people say “get over it” about lots of things. Childlessness is definitely one of them. I know men and women who have progressed from childless to childfree. They have come to a place where they don’t mind not having children. They’re even glad about it. God bless them, but it’s not that easy for most of us. The least our partners can do is try to understand that sometimes that old wound will still hurt.

I think “get over it” is one of the most hurtful phrases in our language. It denies our right to have feelings, and those who say it should get over that.

Has anyone ever said this to you?