Interview with Dr. Jennifer Levin, Family Therapist and Grief Counselor
Those navigating infertility and/or miscarriage(s) often experience deep feelings of grief. While it’s normal to feel a sense of sadness and loss while unsuccessfully trying to build or grow your family, it’s not something that most people openly discuss. As a result, the grieving is silent, which may make it even harder to process.
Dr. Jennifer Levin, from TherapyHeals.com, specializes in grief and is also a recognized fellow in thanatology, the study of death, dying and bereavement. She works with a range of people, including adolescents and teens who have experienced the untimely death of a parent, families who have lost a loved one to suicide, accidents or violence, and couples who have experienced the death of a spouse, child or a miscarriage.
We interviewed Dr. Levin to find out more about grief, and how it can best be processed and managed for those who experience infertility.
How did you start your career and what drew you to grief as a focus of your practice?
My career actually started in research and in understanding the needs of individuals near the end of life, particularly women dying from breast cancer. During this time, I began to develop a relationship with the whole family, and over time my work shifted to helping those left behind and grieving after the death of their loved one. I also saw first-hand the significance of life events, the circumstances associated with death, and how the relationship between the deceased and the living impacted the grieving experience.
Today, in my practice, I specialize in working with traumatic and complicated grief and often work with an entire grieving family.
Grief is also the death of a dream or future opportunities or experiences that will never happen. In the early stages of grief we may be surprised by the pain and power of these secondary losses that are often triggered by witnessing others experiencing what we will not have.What’s something people don’t always realize about grief?
There are several things people don’t realize about grief. Firstly, grief touches every area of a person’s life and impacts how we feel physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually and spiritually.
Many individuals who are grieving also find themselves confronting existential concerns, such as: What is the meaning of my life? Why am I here? How do I want to live the remainder of my life?
Secondly, grief has a tendency to impact current and previous struggles in your life and infuse them with steroids! For example, relationship issues that you thought were previously resolved, negative coping mechanisms that have become obsolete and unhealthy behaviors that have been eliminated are all likely to return with a vengeance during early stages of grief. The good news is that as you work through your grief, these issues will eventually return to their previous dormant state.
Finally, in addition to pain associated with a primary loss, grief is full of secondary losses. For many, grief is also the death of a dream or future opportunities or experiences that will never happen. In the early stages of grief we may be surprised by the pain and power of these secondary losses that are often triggered by witnessing others experiencing what we will not have. For example, taking a child to the park, seeing a parent walk a child down the aisle at a wedding, or sharing the presence of someone we love at a major life milestone.
What’s the connection between infertility and grief?
There is definitely a direct relationship between infertility and grief. Although most often used to refer to the death of a person, grief is a multidimensional construct that encompasses many different types of loss. Regardless of the origin of grief, individuals who are grieving may experience intense sadness, emptiness or pain. They may experience feelings of depression, irritability, inability to concentrate or focus, physical pain and loss of pleasure.
In addition, couples that are trying to conceive often experience compounded losses – or multiple losses in a short period of time. Compounded losses may heighten the grief experience and often there is not time to properly grieve one loss before another one is experienced.
Individuals who are grieving a miscarriage often experience ‘disenfranchised grief’, a term used when the grief or loss is not acknowledged by society.What advice do you have for people experiencing grief over miscarriage and/or infertility?
Individuals who are grieving a miscarriage often experience “disenfranchised grief,” a term used when the grief or loss is not acknowledged by society. In disenfranchised grief, the individuals grieving often do not have the same rights or privileges associated with other kinds of loss, therefore limiting the grievers ability to share feelings, receive support and/or validate the importance of their loss.
An important part of grief involves validating and honoring your feelings and pain. It is important not to allow others to make your grief less than. Your pain, loss and grief symptoms are still very real. Do not let people minimize your grief. Advocate for yourself to get the support and services that you feel will be beneficial.
Grief is a process and a unique journey. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Allow yourself to honor your grief journey, develop a self-care routine and utilize self-compassion to get through this difficult time.
How can couples best support each other through the grief that comes with infertility and/or miscarriage?
Remember there is no right or wrong way to grieve. No two partners will grieve in a similar matter. With infertility, you will both be grieving the potential loss of a child, but each of you will process your grief differently.
Find a way to grieve together, but allow each of you time and space to grieve separately and differently. Communication about needs and feelings is especially important during this time and don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help to navigate the multiple complexities of: disenfranchised grief, secondary losses and other circumstances that are coming to surface in your grief.
Despite the pain associated with loss, the grief experienced during infertility can also make a couple stronger when each person has the space to tend to his or her individual needs and gain support from a loved one with a shared dream.
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