Infertility and Loss: Two Great Spiritual Teachers
I met Sara and her husband a few years ago at a yoga retreat and I just knew right away she was someone I wanted to befriend. She’s one of those people that radiates inner beauty and has a peace about her that puts you right at ease. A dedicated yogi, healthy lifestyle junkie and graduate of the University of Santa Monica Spiritual Studies program, Sara was already well on her spiritual way when we met.
At the retreat she mentioned trying to get pregnant and I remember giving her the sort of standard encouraging words without prying too much. But later I found out a bit more about her journey – a journey many of us have taken with an awful name called 'infertility' or the even worse medical term, 'unknown infertility.' Infertility is such a common problem today (worthy of many articles and conversations!) But no matter how many women go through it, it seems to remain some sort of secret, taboo or forbidden subject, even among close friends. It can be a very isolating journey. So it was with admiration and awe that I began reading Sara’s blog. It was a totally open and honest account of what she was going through in facing infertility and I'd not seen or heard anything like it.
Whenever I read a new post, I felt like I was right there beside her on the journey: Through the fear (what if I never ______?) The joy (it worked!) The doubt (triplets, what are we doing?!) Total confusion (the doctors say we need to “reduce” triplets?) And WTF kind of horrible word is that anyway?…To finally, adjusting to her body, and starting to love it and relax. And then, the unthinkable. Losing the baby at almost six months.
Just as I had been wondering why I hadn't gotten a blog update from Sara in awhile, there came the news. I balled as I read that blog post, as she described her “naivity about the depths of despair” she would sink into, about grieving for three lost babies, howling in pain, punching pillows, about laying on the floor crushed and broken, mad at God and thinking she would never get up again. I mourned what she and her husband went through, and remained incredulous that Sara could still be speaking from her higher voice, even as she surrendered the dreaded news that brought she and her husband to their knees.
I interviewed Sara about the blog and/or re-print (when she was ready - of course she would never have imagined how this would turn out when she started blogging) because I was so very proud of her raw honesty and desire to open us up about this subject – and also very curious about this great test of her spirituality.
Q & A:
Glad.is: Why did you decide to blog about your experience?
Sara: After our first appointment with the fertility doctor I knew that my path to pregnancy would involve a surgery and IVF. I was terrified of both but knew I was committed to doing whatever was necessary. I asked myself what I could do to support myself--my husband is awesome and so supportive but I couldn’t lean entirely on him. I reached out to a co-workers wife who had been thru IVF. She was so amazing and became like a coach for me, cheering me on, giving me information. Around this time my friend had started a blog about moving to New Zealand. I loved reading her posts and I thought, why not blog my way thru this process? I thought it might be interesting to some people. I hoped it would bring some levity to a serious situation and I knew I could use some support. I also thought it may be educational to people who are also going thru it or have friends going thru it.
Glad.is: Was everyone supportive of your blog - or were some people insensitive?
Sara: Everyone was really supportive. I got some of the ‘eat green algae’ and ‘do a headstand after sex’ type tips but mostly people were really positive and gave me good feedback. I noticed that when I chose to have a reduction there were fewer cheerleaders for a time but I understood. It was a very intense topic and we are all entitled to our choices. But I felt I had to be as open about that as the rest because it is a real part of the process for many women.
Glad.is: What were your fears about blogging?
Sara: Well, I was completely exposing a perceived shortcoming of mine. This was way outside of my comfort zone. I have mostly been the friend that people come to for support and advice and rarely do I share my challenges and ask for any. I would go to a therapist to work out my stuff. Now I see that I was attached to projecting an image of someone who has her shit together all the time and just sort of floats thru life with effortless grace, never stumbling. This blog was me coming out as flawed and stumbling. Also, prior to stepping foot in the fertility clinic, I used to judge people for going that route. I used to think “if you can’t have kids maybe you aren’t supposed to!” This was, of course, before I had any desire to have them. Now I cringe at how smug I was. I wanted people to know about the desire that pulls people thru the door of the doctor’s office, what the process is really like, and how courageous one has to be to go thru it without any idea of the outcome.
Glad.is: Tell me about your spiritual practice. I know you went to USM and do a lot of yoga, etc, but what practice makes you feel most centered?
Sara: I have a very simple practice that is always changing. I have a morning routine of reading a spiritual passage and then I meditate for 5-10 minutes and sometimes I write afterward. Most days I do some yoga at home and I try to practice mindfulness during the day. I also consider walking my dog (which I do for at least an hour a day) a spiritual practice. A lot of insights come in when we are walking. I have a lot of tools that I use to bring me back into the center when I go out of balance. My husband introduced me to the ‘God Box’. When I am really spinning out on something I write it down on a piece of paper that starts with “God, I am really scared of X,Y,Z and I don’t know what to do so I am turning it over to you. Please help me.” Then I fold it up, put in the God Box and I let it go. Another tool I find really useful is non-dominant hand writing. It’s a kind of Gestalt dialogue where I write out what’s going on and ask for guidance. Then I switch the pen to my left hand and just wait to see what comes. Usually something really profound comes forward. Somehow switching to pen to my non-dominant hand instantly accesses my right brain, which is usually much wiser. And lastly I have some really incredibly wise friends who I met at USM who are my soothsayers and soul sisters. If none of that works I just cry on my bed and hit pillows.
Glad.is: How did your spiritual studies help you get through all of the ups and downs of infertility?
Sara: Perhaps the most profound thing I learned in my studies was the concept of self-forgiveness. I have always struggled with being a bit of a self- righteous brat. I judge people harshly, which I learned means that I judge myself harshly. Self-forgiveness is simple but it’s not easy. It’s a great practice though because you can let go of a lot of shit quickly. It’s basically “I forgive myself for judging myself as….” Or “I forgive myself for judging my friend/coworker/husband as…” I will write it over and over until I feel it shift—usually I feel lighter when I am done.
It helped me tremendously throughout the infertility process. I had a lot of judgments about my body and the choices I had made that had brought me to that point, so I had to forgive myself for all of it so I could move forward.
Glad.is: Did you doubt your spirituality, esp when 'the unthinkable' happened? Did you ever just think "this is all junk in my head?"
Sara: Yes. When Asher died I did sort of shut down for a time. I was so angry with God. I felt completely abandoned and betrayed. I had this belief that if I was ‘spiritual’ and I meditated, ate organic and did yoga that I would somehow be spared life’s difficulties. It took me a month of reading and re-reading ‘When Things fall Apart’ by Pema Chodron to realize that everyone suffers in life. We are meant to suffer and no amount of being good or nice can protect us from it. How we deal with suffering is the only thing that matters. We can rage against it and become bitter and angry or we can look around and really see all the ways that people suffer and let compassion arise not only for them but for ourselves as well. I felt like I was dropped head first into my humanity and I felt connected to every other person’s suffering in a way that I never had before. I used to look away when I saw suffering and now I can’t.
Glad.is: How do you think you would have dealt with the whole process without your grounding?
Sara: Gosh, I don’t know. I may have just jumped off a cliff! I knew that there was no way around the grief and that I had to just walk thru it. I unapologetically took 6 weeks off of work because I knew I needed it. This was the worst thing that had ever happened to me and I wanted to learn the lessons. I worked with a grief counselor and it was truly a healing experience. She and I worked through a lot of old grief that was stirred up by this experience. It was hard and exhausting but I knew it was necessary. I also saw a psychiatrist who treated me for post-traumatic stress and anxiety. I’m not one to embrace pharmaceuticals but I must say that Prozac was a godsend for a few months. It helped me be able to do the healing work. I helped me be able to leave the house. The whole process brought me to my knees and I surrendered to it. Without my spiritual practice I doubt I would have been able to surrender. I would have tried to control even more. I would have been angrier longer and I would have missed the opportunity for deep healing and transformation.
Glad.is: Are you ready to start trying again? If so, will you approach it differently (spiritually?) And will you blog about it again?
Sara: In the hospital when my husband and I held Asher’s body we knew instantly that we were already parents and that we would try again as soon as possible. My doctor wanted us to wait 6 months, which meant we could try again in February 2013. I was ok with that because I wanted time to heal. At the end of November I resigned from my job because it was extremely stressful and I just couldn’t imagine going thru the whole process again while working. I knew didn’t have the energy to do both and I was committed to starting a family above all else. Just before Christmas we found out I was pregnant. A spontaneous, natural pregnancy --which the doctors said was impossible. I’m now 17 weeks and I have not blogged about it yet. I will when I am ready, which I think will be soon. I’ve just sort of been letting it all sink in and allowing myself to rest as much as possible. In terms of approaching it differently I’d say I am doing my best to be truly surrendered to whatever happens. As I get further along it’s becoming more difficult because I am so attached. Some days I feel that if something happens to this baby that would be the end of me and other days I know that I will get thru whatever is to come. But I’m not going to lie, it’s very hard at times. Thankfully I have the time to nurture myself and try to stay centered and peaceful, which helps tremendously.
Glad.is: Lastly, do you have an opinion or thought on why so many women don't talk about infertility? I can imagine how much we could support each other we were more open.
Sara: I think the main reason is shame. Our bodies are not capable of doing what they are in essence made to do. It’s embarrassing and can make one feel defective and less than. Plus hardly anyone talks about it so there is a sense that you are the only one who is struggling. While you may know intellectually that you are not the only one on the planet going thru it you may very easily be the only one in your social circle who is and that is very isolating. I also think friends and family members are uncomfortable talking about it and that can make the woman going thru it feel even worse. People really don’t understand what it’s like so when they say things like “Just go on vacation” or “Just don’t think about it” which can be extremely condescending and irritating. Sometimes it’s easier to just keep it to yourself. In my opinion it is extremely important to have someone to talk to.
That’s why I want to start a group where women can be real with each other and support each other thru the process.
Words of encouragement: Have a friend going through this same experience? Glad.is has gift ideas for those on the path of creation, and dealing with loss.
Update: Sara just celebrated the 6th birthday of her beautiful daugther Ellery!
I hold a Masters Degree in Spiritual Psychology, a Bachelors Degree in Human Biology and I am a Certified Yoga Teacher, Hypnotherapist and Health Coach. I have been studying wellness, nutrition and the mind-body connection for 15 years. I have been on the infertility roller coaster for almost 3 years. In that time, I have been deemed unable to get pregnant naturally, gone thru surgery and IVF, been pregnant with triplets, lost a baby at almost 6 months and have conceived naturally against all odds. I am also a reformed corporate stress-ball who is currently exploring writing and radical self-care. You can reach me at: sarareichling @gmail.com.