It’s been 8 years since Brennan proposed. We were on a weekend getaway in Savannah. I couldn’t wait to start planning the wedding and was already setting up venue tours on the drive back home the next day. I was naively optimistic about life and what it would entail now that I had a fiancé and wedding to plan. We were hopeful, blissful even, and completely unprepared for what was to come in the years that followed.
What I hadn’t realized at that point was that we had just stepped onto a high-speed roller coaster. The years that followed would give us the highest highs and the lowest lows we could imagine. And now, 8 years later, things have finally slowed down enough for me to start to process everything that has happened.
A few months after our engagement, I got a call from my dad. I could hear in his voice that something was wrong immediately. He told me that my mother’s breast cancer, the cancer that had been gone for 15 years, the cancer that she had beaten (or so we thought), had returned. And this time it was aggressive, stage 4. It was in her bones. The median life span after this kind of diagnosis was 3 years.
For a while, my mom’s treatments were going well. The chemo was working. But Brennan and I decided that no matter what, we would start trying to get pregnant immediately following the wedding. I wanted my mom to be as much of a part of my pregnancy and motherhood as possible. Time was of the essence.
We had been married a little less than a year when I decided to seek help with fertility, and go see a reproductive endocrinologist. It took one blood test and a round of Clomid to realize that this whole “getting pregnant” thing wasn’t going to be easy. My doctor diagnosed me with “diminished ovarian reserve” because my AMH levels were undetectable. This meant that my ovarian reserve, the amount of eggs I had left, was more like a woman in her 40s, and not someone who had just turned 30.
We immediately jumped into our first IVF cycle, which failed miserably. We ended up transferring 2 very low quality embryos and ending the cycle with a negative pregnancy test. At the time, my mom wasn’t doing very well either. She had already tried two chemos that had stopped working, and was on her way to a third. Metastatic cancer is aggressive and relentless, and eventually the chemos just stop working. We were running out of time.
Brennan and I decided that we would move onto donor eggs. More than anything, I wanted to be a mother, and using my eggs didn’t look very promising. Donor eggs were from younger women who were very fertile. Brennan and I called them our “golden eggs”. We forged ahead with the process. Ultimately, donor eggs didn’t end up bring us a baby either. Our first two cycles ended in negative pregnancy tests, and the following two brought lots of ups and downs that started with positive pregnancy tests, and ended in emergency surgeries to remove ectopic pregnancies (and one of my fallopian tubes). After 4 transfers (from two different donors) of “textbook perfect” embryos, we still had no baby.
It was at this time that my doctor ran extensive blood work on me to see if there could be any reason why my body would not accept and hold a pregnancy. He discovered that I had a mutation of the MTHFR gene that was not allowing my body to break down or absorb folic acid properly. This could have been causing all of my pregnancy losses. He prescribed me special vitamins for this condition that would allow my body to properly absorb the folic acid. We planned an experimental surgery that would essentially scar my leftover fallopian tube so that no more embryos would venture into the tube. It would make IVF our only option, since the tubes would be permanently shut.
Luckily, I never had the surgery. A month after meeting with my doctor and taking the prescribed vitamins, I found out that I was pregnant, naturally. Oddly enough, the egg had come from the ovary on the side of my body that did NOT have a tube. Apparently this was extremely rare, but possible. Once we found out that the baby was in the right place, we were able to tell our families. My mom was sicker than she had ever been, and we were starting to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. I’m so glad she was able to know that I was pregnant with a little girl before she passed away. I was 5 months pregnant when she died. I have never felt so happy and so sad in my whole life. In a very short amount of time, I said goodbye to my mom, and met my baby girl, Andie. She brought my family joy at one of the darkest times in our life, she was the biggest blessing. My father loved Andie with all of his heart and spent time with her whenever he could. She helped him to get through some of his hardest times.
My mother and father loved each other more than anything. My father didn’t cope well with the loss of my mom, and I’m not sure that he could recover from the heart break that he felt without her. Ten months after my mom passed away, my dad followed her. We didn’t get any warnings this time. No long days in hospice to say our goodbyes and hold onto each other. My dad went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up. He suffered a cardiac arrest, and his heart stopped. It was as if he just couldn’t keep on going without my mom.
A few months after my dad passed away, I found out that I was pregnant again. But sadly, this pregnancy ended in another miscarriage. Brennan and I decided that maybe Andie was just meant to be an only child, and we decided to just hold off on trying for a bit. I didn’t think that I could handle any more heartbreak. But two years later we got another surprise pregnancy, and this baby decided to stick around. After an intense middle of the night entrance into this world, 5 weeks ahead of his scheduled due date, our little boy, Sawyer, was born. Despite being so early, he was a healthy and happy little guy. My family finally felt complete.
What I have realized only recently is that I was so focused - and moving so fast - that I never fully grieved the losses that I experienced, through infertility or the death of my parents. In the span of time between our engagement to now- we dealt with 5 unsuccessful IVF cycles, lost 4 babies and both of my parents, and had two miracle babies. The rollercoaster never really slowed down and the highs and lows were extreme. I let myself numb the emotions in order to keep myself continuously moving forward. Mostly because I wanted to appear strong. I wanted to protect my children and my friends from my sadness. Grief is not fun or easy to be around, and It isn’t well understood by those who haven’t been through it.
The Grief of Infertility
Infertility can bring immense grief, even without experiencing a miscarriage or loss. Many of us in this community experience the grief of getting pregnant “the normal way”. There is a grief of the life we had planned for ourselves. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes doctor’s visits, shots, and thousands of dollars being spent on treatments and medications!! Oh wait, that’s not how it goes…
When dealing with infertility, I dealt with the sadness and grief privately. Because my losses happened before the magical “12 week mark”, most of the people in the outer circle of my life didn’t know what I was going through at all. They didn’t know that I had been told that the likelihood of having a genetic child was slim, and that I was grieving the loss of a biological connection. They had no idea that my husband was shooting me up with an endless supply of hormones on a daily basis. Sometimes these shots were administered in the weirdest of places or situations... like after sneaking Brennan into a women’s locker room at a country club wedding or trying to find an empty room in his office building if he had to work late. (It wasn’t until my very last cycle of IVF that I became an official badass and finally learned to give the shots to myself like the real infertility veteran I was.) People also didn’t know that we were taking loans out and paying a massive amount of money just for the chance to get pregnant. An average cycle of IVF costs around $23,000. Like many other couples in this game, we were without infertility insurance and required multiple cycles. Our savings was quickly depleting and all we had to show for it was negative pregnancy tests, and lots of bills.
Infertility is an awkward topic to discuss. Nobody at the water cooler wants to hear about your date with the ultrasound wand or about how your husband had to give a sperm sample in the “boom boom” room at the fertility clinic. (Brennan is a trooper. Ask him to rank the comfort level of these rooms at each of the 3 clinics where we were patients and he will inform you the “first to worst” with detailed evidence to back up his claims.) Aside from my incredible community of women on Instagram (who were also part of the infertile club), a few close friends, and my family, nobody else really understood the depths of what I was going through. At work, I would hide in the stairwell to take calls from my doctor. It was in that stairwell that I learned that my egg quality was bad, that donor eggs were recommended, that another pregnancy test had come back negative, that I needed to schedule a D&C because I was losing another baby. I was expected to move on with my day like nothing had happened. Like my world had not just come crashing down over and over again.
Grieving my Parents
With the loss of my parents, it was more acceptable to grieve publicly...for a while. In the days and weeks following their deaths, so many people dropped off meals, sent me messages, and allowed me to cry and be sad. But after about a month, everyone else moved on. Understandably so, because that’s how life works. People were scared to mention my parents to me for fear of upsetting me, making me cry, or making things weird. Life was back to normal. Again, I was expected to move on with my day like nothing had happened.
Life After Death and Infertility
Now, 8 years after our engagement, I have finally stepped off the rollercoaster and the dizziness has settled. I have finally stopped to grieve the losses I endured. I have finally stopped pushing down the sadness that shows up when a memory or thought of my miscarriages or parents surface.
Instead of hiding my infertility journey, I share it. I post about it on social media and I talk about it with my friends. I have built friendships with women who are currently going through it, with hopes that they don’t ever feel alone. Infertility has become part of my identity. When I became a mom, I didn’t leave this community behind. Infertility shaped my story, and influenced who I am today. Instead of feeling shame about it, I am proud of it.
In a similar way, I’m also embracing the loss of my parents. Instead of pushing down the emotion I feel when I think about them, I am holding on to it. Instead of keeping myself busy so I can more easily pretend that I didn’t lose two of the most important people in my life, I am acknowledging the loss. I let myself feel ALL of the feelings, even if it makes me sad, or angry. Even if I think I shouldn’t. I let myself stop and look at a photo of my mom and dad and smile or cry. I let myself feel bitter or jealous (without guilt) when some one my age posts about the loss of a grandparent, instead of the loss of a parent. I point out pictures of my parents to my children and tell them stories. I let myself think of them, and remember them, and love them, without shutting it down before it feels to real or raw. And I TALK about them.
I talk about them a lot. I tell funny stories about them, I post about them on Instagram, I bring them into the conversation. Because they are still my people, and they are still important, and because I fear that if I don’t keep them present, nobody else will. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and awkward. Some people don’t want to talk to me about my dead parents. But I’ve found the people that let me talk, let me reminisce, and let me embrace and share my stories. And I know who might not be that person for me. And it’s ok. Not everyone can be good at that. I can’t claim that I was good at that before I knew this kind of grief.
In my experience, there is no linear path, or 5 stages, or any “right” way to grieve. People said things to me like “time will heal” or “you will move on”. People say these things because they didn’t know what else to say, and because they sound positive and encouraging. They told me to focus on all the good things that I have, that I should be thankful for. But while well intentioned, those sentiments were detrimental to my actual healing. I am very thankful that Brennan and I ended up having two beautiful children after such a struggle. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that my parents are no longer here to enjoy them. It doesn’t replace my grief from the babies that I lost. These ideas promoted the notion that my grief was temporary and meant to be pushed aside so that life could happen again. I thought I was strong if I had “moved on”. I was proud of myself for not thinking of my parents, and not crying. But what I learned is that life and grief can coexist. Sure, I think the initial grief, the intense shock and anger, the “lay-in-your-bed-and-cry-until-you-can’t-breathe” kind of grief goes away. But I don’t miss my parents any less than I first did. My grief is still there as much as it was on the day that they died. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them, or wish they were here, or think of something funny and want to pick up the phone and call them. And now that I’m embracing these thoughts, it makes me sad.... but it also brings me joy.
Finding My Joy
Since my parents have been gone, my life has not been lacking happiness. My sister moved back to our hometown with her family. While they were looking for a house, the house next door to ours went up for sale. So, naturally, they bought it and moved in (that’s totally normal right?). We joke that my parents wanted us to be close and orchestrated the whole thing. We have started to carry on traditions that I know would make my parents so happy. We have Sunday night dinners, we have dance parties, we play pranks on each other with water balloons, and we drink wine and laugh deliriously. But we are also there when one of us has had a bad day. Because she is truly the only one who really gets what that means. My sister and I have plans for how we can make sure our children know their “Beba” and “Mema”, and how we can celebrate and share our parents with them. We have plans to make sure that they continue to be a part of our lives, even after death.
I find joy when Brennan and I have date nights and reminisce about our infertility journey and all the craziness we have been through, when we watch the kids play in the backyard, and when we all snuggle in bed on Saturday morning and watch cartoons. I especially love when I see my parents reflected in the personalities and expressions of my children. My son is an exact replica of my dad, and my daughter has my mom’s eyes and her tenacity. These two important people that I lost, will never be able to enjoy these two little important people that I gained. I will never get to see them build a relationship. But I know that Andie and Sawyer will still know and love their grandparents. And it is up to me to make sure of it.
It has taken me eight long years to get to where I am today. To know that time doesn’t have to heal me, that I don’t have to be strong all the time. And I am still learning and growing. I am still navigating my life after infertility and death.