Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade have been vocal about their long battle with infertility. The actress and NBA superstar have spoken about facing the heartbreak of past miscarriages, and about coping with the stress of multiple failed IVF cycles. In an exclusive at-home interview with Oprah Winfrey, the new parents talked about what their honesty could mean for others struggling alone on a similar journey.
“So many people are suffering in silence,” Union told Oprah. “Every time, when we’re candid and transparent about our journeys… you are allowing people to be seen and heard and empowered in ways that they’ve never been,” she said. “They feel like they’re not alone.”
Union addressed her struggle with infertility in her best-seller, We’re Going to Need More Wine, but as new parents (they recently had a baby via a surrogate), the couple has a new perspective on the subject. “There are many paths to parenthood and motherhood,” Union said. “Every path is beautiful, real, valid, and worthwhile.”
Everyone’s struggle with infertility is deeply personal and complex, and it can be hard to know what to say when a friend is facing this kind of stress. “There isn’t a general rule when it comes to consoling a friend because everyone’s journey is so different,” Maria Shifrin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Thrive Global. “But while the cases can vary, there are general guidelines that can be helpful in navigating the conversation.”
Even if you’re not dealing with infertility yourself, here’s what you should say (and what you should avoid saying!) to a friend so you can help them through this often-stressful period.
1. Empathize with how they’re feeling
“As a friend, it helps to conceptualize the process as an ambiguous loss,” Shifrin says. “Infertility can be this unclear, nebulous experience if you’ve never gone through it — and people don’t know how to be helpful because we don’t understand what the feeling is.” By thinking about your friend’s experience as one of loss (either a literal loss, in the case of miscarriage, or a figurative loss, where they are mourning the easy, seamless conception they hoped to have), you can better understand how to approach them. “Every month, they’re going through grief and loss over and over again. Labelling it can you better understand that,” Shifrin says.
2. Be careful about advice
Don’t offer advice unless it’s asked for, Shifrin says. If you are weighing in, keep your comments vague and supportive. “Personal insight can often feel insensitive,” Shifrin explains. She says that some friends tend to guess why or how their friend is dealing with this issue, but they typically just need your support. Make it clear that you’re there to listen — that will matter most.
3. Foster social connection
Some of the most meaningful support for people struggling with infertility comes from being around others who are going through something similar, Shifrin says. “If you know of someone else going through a similar journey, connect them. Even if you can’t relate to their struggle, helping them build on the connection of social support is helpful.”
4. Just be there
Remember that there’s value in being an empathetic friend and just being physically there, Shifrin notes. Often, people can feel lonely, anxious, and isolated during this time, so they really want non-judgmental, unbiased support. And even if they are talking about their situation with their doctor, you shouldn’t assume your presence isn’t appreciated. “There can be a lack of sensitivity in the medical field, and that’s when people need a friend,” Shifrin says. Without asking too many questions, simply prove that you’re there for them if they want some company.
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