Guidance for supporting your loved ones through IVF
If a friend or loved one confides in you that they are struggling to conceive and are undergoing fertility treatment, it may have been a difficult thing for them to tell you, and you may feel worried about what to say to them, in case you say something wrong or upset them.
The most important thing you can do is to be there for them, allow them to talk when they want to and be sensitive to how they are feeling. If you haven’t been through it yourself it is difficult to fully understand the emotions it can create, so here are some tips to help you support your loved one through this extremely difficult time.
Don’t ignore the issue
If your friend or loved one has confided in you that they are struggling to conceive or going through IVF, they will appreciate you checking in with them to see how they are getting on, even though you may feel awkward having the conversation. Asking how their treatment is going and how they are feeling shows you care and are supportive of what they are going through. They may not want to talk about what they are going through or where they are up to with their treatment all the time, but at least ask how they are and see if they want to talk.
If they don’t want to talk about it, then don’t push the subject, it's just important for them to know that you care enough to ask. It is better to ask than to say nothing because you are afraid of upsetting them, as this can give the impression that you don’t care.
Do your research
Fertility treatment is an intensive and emotional process, your friend will appreciate you understanding what is involved and you will be able to support them better if you know what they are going through.
Research on reputable sites, and use resources such as the HFEA in the UK, the Fertility Network, Resolve and the Leeaf app for medical information and support guidance.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s IVF experience will be different, so don’t make assumptions. By researching treatment and the emotional impact, you can ask sensitive questions and be there for them at the most emotional points of the treatment.
Research has shown that the psychological stress and depression often experienced by women with infertility is similar to that of women coping with other illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and HIV. Many people experience a continuous cycle of hope and heartbreak each month and grieve for the life they had planned out (one that included children).
Be sensitive to their emotions, put yourself in their shoes and think about how you would feel. Offer a sympathetic ear - be there for them when they need it. Some days they may want to talk about it, other days they might want to be distracted from it all.
Be mindful of making throwaway comments to lighten the mood (‘just stop worrying’, ‘at least you have freedom to do what you like’ ‘just relax’... ). This trivialises the issue and is likely to offend and upset them, and it can make them feel as though they are to blame for it not happening yet.
Be mindful in giving advice
As much as you feel you are helping by giving advice, if you haven’t done your research you could be giving misguided advice and causing more upset. Many couples struggling to conceive have people trying to reassure them that it is only a matter of time and that they just need to stop thinking about it.
This isn’t helpful to those struggling with infertility as they may have been trying for a baby for years, and it is also dismissing a problem that is a recognised medical condition. It is better to ask how they are doing and if they would like to talk about it.
Offering advice on how their lifestyle may be causing the problem (stress, smoking, weight etc) will only make them feel worse and that their struggle to have a baby is their fault. There are sensitive ways you can encourage them to make health lifestyle choices and even join them in making changes to help motivate them.
After you have done some research you can direct them to reputable sites for information and help them access reliable sources of support.
Ask if there is anything you can do to help
Fertility treatment can be extremely draining, both physically and emotionally, with some of the procedures requiring rest afterwards. Your friend will appreciate you offering practical and emotional support around treatment.
This could be taking some food for them on the day of egg collection when they are feeling sore and lethargic after the sedation, or a trip to the cinema when they are feeling nervous about the results or needing a distraction. It may be that they would like you to attend a doctor's appointment with them if their partner isn’t able to make it, or a lift to and from their procedures.
Be specific in what you ask them (rather than ‘Can I help in any way?’, say ‘Can I bring some food around for you’, ‘Do you need me to give you a lift to your appointment’), they are more likely to answer honestly rather than just saying ‘no’. However, accept their answer, they may want privacy or some time to process everything themselves, and don’t be offended. It's a very emotionally draining process.
IVF involves boosting different hormones artificially and can cause changes in mood, and many women experience mood swings. Be understanding that all the hormones they have to take can cause mood swings, so if they snap at you try not to take it personally. Let them know that you are there for them if they want to talk.
Limit talking about pregnancy and babies
Be sensitive about talking about other people’s babies and pregnancies, they may find it difficult to listen to. They will struggle to listen to talk about sleepless nights, stretchmarks and baby names, when that is the one thing they are desperate for.
Be mindful about pregnancy announcements if you know your friend is struggling. Announcements can be very triggering and they may prefer to hear pregnancy announcements privately so they can process their emotions in their own time. It’s not that they are not happy about the news, they are just likely to be feeling sad for themselves.
If you are pregnant yourself, be sensitive about what you say to them. You may feel your morning sickness and tiredness are awful, but for someone doing a round of IVF, those are things to celebrate. Be mindful of their feelings, it's not that they are not happy for you or don't want to support you, but it is difficult for them to hear.
Unfortunately people still feel uncomfortable talking about infertility and needing treatment, they may feel embarrassed to admit it and feel like it is some sort of failure on their part.
It is a very personal thing to go through and a couple will only confide in people that they want to know. Please be respectful of their privacy and don’t discuss it with other people that they haven’t told. Equally, don’t be offended if a friend hasn’t told you, it is a difficult thing to talk about and they may want to keep it private.
Your loved one is going through an extremely difficult time, and it can be difficult to know what to say or do. Just let them know that you are there for them whatever they need. They will really appreciate your support and it will make a huge difference to how they are feeling.
You can download the Leeaf app for free to access information and support that will help you support your loved one through this challenging time.