5 stages of grief

I think for most of us, there’s potentially a long process of coming to the realization that you are going to be a childless woman.  There’s no one big moment. And yet, it still catches us totally off guard.

You grow up assuming you’ll become a mother one day.  You have no reason to believe that you won’t be.  Whenever you meet a childless couple, you don’t even really register it or think about what their life is really like.  You’ll never be that person so it doesn’t even enter your mind.

And yet, there IS a moment when you suddenly realize, oh my goodness, I’m here.  I AM a childless woman. Not going to be, but am already.

Going back to the process…when I look back on my fertility journey, there was a sort of pivotal moment.  The moment the doctor told us IVF would be futile unless we considered a donor egg.  I was crushed.  (I say I because I know my husband was not as crushed as I was.)  But I can only see that pivotal moment in hindsight. AT the time, I didn’t see it.  I just saw it as another obstacle to get through. Or over.

But there was another year of debate and consideration of other options and hoping that it was still somehow going to happen before I finally woke up.  And admitted to myself that I am a childless woman.  I already was.

And then began the long process to acceptance.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  A single woman spends her 30’s hoping she’ll meet the right one and then even at 40, she’s still calculating…if I meet someone today, we could still hit it off quickly and have a couple of years to try to get pregnant.  She debates whether to try a sperm donor or adopt on her own. Until one day…she wakes up like I did.

I know I’m leaving out a zillion other women who have become childless by other circumstances but I think you get the idea.

So why is it that even though there is sometimes a multiple year long process leading up to the realization that you are a childless woman, you’re still caught off guard?

I believe that we quash any thoughts of what life looks like without children all along the way.  We won’t even allow ourselves to consider what it might look like.   It’s never been a part of our imagined future.  We feel that if we even contemplate it for a second that it might jinx our chances of somehow having children.

So when we finally come to the realization that we ARE in fact childless, we have no idea how to be.   We’ve been so wrapped up in the identity of being a mother, so wrapped up in the future for so long, a future with children, that we don’t know how to be in the present anymore either.

We have no imagined future without children.  Our dreams all included children.  We have to give up and accept that our dream is dead and so is our identity.

If you are someone who is having trouble moving forward with her life, it’s likely because you’re having trouble laying to rest your desired identity of being a mother, and your dreams.  You are still grieving, you might still be in denial and haven’t yet accepted your circumstances.

It’s similar to the grieving process we hear about when someone loses a loved one.  Elizabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler wrote about these. David Kessler actually wrote a book on the 6th stage, which is finding meaning.

The 5 stages are denial, there’s anger, there’s bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These stages don’t necessarily happen in that order, and there’s often movement from one to another and back again. I think of them more as aspects of grief, not stages.

How the 5 stages of grief apply.

1. Denial. For me there was a long period of denial. When I didn’t want to believe that I was childless. I looked into foster care.    I still hoped that I would somehow miraculously become pregnant naturally.  Have you ever done this?  Someone would mention a friend or a teenager, or someone who accidentally got pregnant, can’t keep the baby and my mind would automatically start thinking about how I could get them to have the baby so I could adopt it.  It was ludicrous, I knew, but I couldn’t stop myself.

2. Anger. There’s definitely anger.  Anger at myself for not doing things differently, for not seeing things or realizing that my biological clock really was ticking.  Angry at others. Anger at my body. At God.

3. Bargaining. Sometimes it might be bargaining with God – I’ll do anything if you just give me a child. This stage is also be tied up in “what if”.  What if I had done things differently.  What if I hadn’t messed up that relationship.  If only I had frozen my eggs.  If only I started the adoption process sooner.  Guilt is common in this stage.

4. Depression. The childless life can seem like it holds no meaning. Childless women often ask themselves, what’s my purpose now?  How will I leave a legacy?  And there’s longing for what we thought our lives would look like.

5. Acceptance. This is really about accepting the reality that this is permanent. That this is the new norm.  It’s not necessarily being okay with it yet.  We often try to go back to the way life was before. Or to keep life that way.  We can’t replace what has been lost but we begin to build around the loss.  To make new relationships, friendships, and connections.  We begin to live life again instead of putting it on hold.

Even when you reach some level of acceptance, you might still revert back to one of the other stages.

So what do you do? Here are three steps to follow:

Step 1: The first step is to admit, maybe even to yourself, that you might be grieving.  And give yourself permission to grieve.  The loss of a dream counts.

Step 2: the next step is to recognize what stage you’re in.  You might go through all 5 in the span of an hour and then do it all again the next day.  Or you may stay in a stage for days or weeks, even months.  Take stock.  Notice.  Tune inwards.  What are you feeling?

Step 3: Allow yourself to feel whatever it is without judgment.  We’re used to telling ourselves that good girls don’t get angry and so we suppress it.  We think, “this isn’t like losing a child, I should be moving past this by now”.  Don’t do that to yourself.  Allow yourself to feel sad.

Even if you’re in denial – you likely aren’t right now if you’re listening to this but you could slip back into it tomorrow when you say, “wait, no, I’m not ready to let this go, I’m going to go back and try x, or y”.   Or you’re continuing to hope for a miracle.

Whatever stage you’re in, if you’re feeling like you’ve been stuck cycling through these stages, I have something coming up that will help.

I will be leading something called a Dream Memorial for those of you who are ready to lay your dream of becoming a mother to rest.  We’ll gather together with other childless women all going through something similar, do some writing, a meditation and some sharing.   You’ll leave this virtual retreat feeling empowered, in control and much more able to move forward in a positive way.  Join me on Monday evening, June 6th at 8pm EST.  Here’s the link to join. 

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References from this episode:

Click here to join the Dream Memorialvirtual retreat with Sheri

David Kessler’s website: The 5 Stages of Grief 


Sheri Johnson