I obviously didn’t understand everything happening but I did understand I lost something, more than that, someone that I really loved. It was a sad time, but there was also a sense of peace and closure once we buried my grandfather, shared memories, and consoled one another.
At 31 my wife and I found out we couldn’t have children. It’s been three years, so the grieving period has passed and just like with the death of my grandfather, my wife and I have been able to find closure and have moved on, right? No, it’s not like that at all. There are no memories to think back on, no flesh and bones body to say goodbye to, no hope of seeing them again when I breathe my last because they never breathed their first. The dreams of children that share my DNA, nose, eyes, traits, will never exist. I would argue that this type of “invisible grief,” the death of hopes, dreams, and desires, is just as painful as any other human loss if not more so.
Today there are millions living with this type of grief; the infertile, the unmarried, the orphaned, and mentally ill; the invisible grief of what has never been. Unable to have children, experience marriage, love and care from parents, or pursue life without crippling anxiety, panic, or depression. If this is you, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. If this isn’t you, you’re probably doing one of three things: clicking to something else because this doesn’t pertain to you, minimizing this type of loss because you have trouble relating, or (and I really hope this is you), wanting to better understand so you can help bear the burdens of your brothers and sisters walking in this day to day reality.
When approaching grief, many psychologists look through the lens of tangible loss of health or life. Based on this metric, researchers have found that “Prolonged grief is relatively rare — experienced by about 10 percent of the bereaved, though rates may vary depending on the circumstances.” - Dr. Holly Prigerson, a Harvard psychologist specializing in grief. While this is true for those who have lost someone, it’s not very helpful when it comes to the death of what never was.
We often look at grief as having a time clock. “You should grieve for this long and then move on.” Who decided this? Could it be that when these feelings of real loss go on for an extended period of time, it starts to make those close to the situation uncomfortable or irritated? Or maybe it’s because we live in a society that is increasingly self-centered and fast paced; with dwindling room for empathy? Or maybe, just maybe we have grown so relationally superficial that we have no idea how to grieve well or support those who are grieving; especially when it’s long term.
In the bible, Abraham and Sarah were unable to have children. David was 75 when God came to him and promised that he would be the father of a great nation but another 25 years went by before their miracle son Isaac was born. The couple’s desire to have a child was so strong that they made some really poor decisions to try to change their situation. The point being, this couple’s desire and the grief of their child that didn’t exist didn’t diminish, even when God promised them children!
Invisible grief to some degree is usually long term because these God given desires go unfulfilled and serve as constant reminders of what has never been. Does the gaping hole of grief tend to get smaller as time goes on? Maybe, maybe not. For those who can’t have children, adoption is a beautiful opportunity, but it’s not a cure for the infertile heart that desires to experience all that pregnancy offers. For the single person who wants to be married, having great family and friends can help, but it’s not a cure. For the orphan, growing up and having a stable family is a huge blessing, but not an answer to living life without a mother or father.
I live in Seattle, not exactly the most “pro-family” city. When people ask “Do you have kids?” and I answer, “No,” the assumption isn’t that I’m infertile. The first thought would more than likely be that this was a conscious choice. The same goes for those who are single and for those lacking sustainable relationships due to mental illness; this must be a “choice” not a “consequence.” On the other hand, if I told you I once had a child, spouse, parent, or best friend and they passed away, you would automatically understand there’s been a loss and would seek to connect with me on an emotional level and offer condolences.
Invisible grief to some degree is usually long term because these God given desires go unfulfilled and serve as constant reminders of what has never been.
This doesn’t mean to share the details of your circumstances with every person you come in contact with, but there is a shared responsibility. There’s no way for me to know what you’re going through unless you share, and there’s no way to care and support unless we listen and ask.
God is close to the brokenhearted, and offers comfort to the hurting. He can heal the most broken heart and even take away feelings of loss (which I pray He does for you and me). At the same time let’s not gloss over or cross our fingers, hoping that one day these feelings just disappear; as if that’s what faith really looks like. Faith isn’t ignoring; it’s knowing there will be dark days but trusting that God is walking through it with us. It’s healthy to recognize and acknowledge when things are not as they should be. Yes, God is good, but it doesn’t mean my circumstances are “good.” Yes, I love God, but I don’t agree with Him all of the time and I don’t always understand His plans, and He’s not only big enough to handle your honesty, but welcomes it.
Here’s some good news. God created you and knows exactly what you’re facing and feeling; even if no one else seems to. He literally knit you together and nothing gets past Him. And although you may not understand or agree with His plans, He promises He has good for His children. I know, that doesn’t take away all of the pain but it is a strong truth to hold onto and Jesus is at the foundation. Our heavenly Father can relate with our loss because He experienced loss; greater than we could imagine; the loss of a child. A perfectly innocent child put to death for imperfect rebels. In Christ we have hope not only for eternity but between now and then; that God will never abandon his adopted children and has a prefect future void of any grief or any loss in our future. All of the brokenness, loneliness, confusion, and pain that comes with invisible grief, Jesus took to the cross; it’s all been dealt with through Christ, there will be full resolve.
Here are some truths that have been helpful for me and I hope they’re a help to you as well.
- You are not second rate. God doesn’t do “second rate” (Psalm 139:14).
- You are not defined by brokenness, but it's okay to be broken (Matt 11:28-30).
- It's okay to feel real emotions even anger, God can handle it (Psalm 22:1).
- You are NOT being punished, Jesus already was (Isaiah 53:5).
- Give people grace when they say the wrong thing or don't understand (Colossians 3:13).
- Let people share in this with you, even though it hurts (Galatians 6:2).
- God loves you. His reasons are beyond our own, but His love is ALWAYS GOOD (Jeremiah 29:11).
- It’s okay to not be okay. God will meet you where you are (Psalm 38:14).
- Don't lose hope…this isn’t the end (Psalm 42:5).
Read more from Drew Hensley here