The below article, about disenfranchised grief, was the first public thing I ever wrote about childlessness, back in 2017. It’s a deeply personal piece, and every time I share it, I feel nervous, although I’ve only ever received positive comments in response to it. I originally published it on a now defunct blog I created called The Imagined Mother, inspired by the first ever World Childless Week, but then I realised I was too slow a writer to be a regular blogger. I’m currently in the process of writing another post for this site, about getting started with writing to heal from childlessness, which will focus on private writing because not everything should or needs to be published. Indeed, the first tentative pieces I wrote about childlessness were private and for my eyes only, and will always stay that way. But I wanted to re-share this public piece because not only was writing it therapeutic, in the sense of giving me a structure within which I could untangle all my complicated feelings about grief and childlessness, but also because I feel acknowledging and naming our grief, whether we do it privately or publicly, by writing or by other means, is so important in starting to heal and come to terms with childlessness. I hope you find the piece interesting. If you would like some support to help you write about childlessness, check out the workshops and writing exercises tabs above. 

Grief Comes In Different Colours

Grief is something nearly all of us will experience at some point in our lives and most would agree it’s one of the most traumatic and harrowing of all emotional responses we can go through. Many of us feel that we know instinctively what grief is, and yet pinning down a single definition of grief is almost impossible. The various definitions available online and elsewhere may resonate more or less depending on your own personal experience, but here are a few of the top ranking results from my own internet search.

Great sorrow and unhappiness, especially at someone’s death. (Chambers Online Dictionary)

Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Grief is both a universal and a personal experience. Individual experiences of grief vary and are influenced by the nature of the loss. Some examples of loss include the death of a loved one, the ending of an important relationship, job loss, loss through theft or the loss of independence through disability. (Mayo Clinic)

Grief can be defined as the response to the loss in all of its totality – including its physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual manifestations – and as a natural and normal reaction to loss. Put simply, grief is the price we pay for love, and a natural consequence of forming emotional bonds to people, projects and possessions. All that we value we will someday lose. (Christopher Hall, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement)

There’s nothing particularly controversial about any of the above definitions, and, with the possible exception of Chambers, they are broad enough to cover a range of life experiences, including but not limited to the death of a loved one. So, if we all think we know what grief is, and most of the definitions acknowledge that grief can be a response to a range of circumstances, what is ‘disenfranchised grief’ and how does it arise?

To disenfranchise is to deny an individual or group a right or privilege generally available to others. It arises when society fails to acknowledge that the thing that is being grieved for had value in the first place. Grief may not feel like much of a privilege when you’re going through it, but, as with so many other forms of privilege, its value only becomes apparent when it’s denied to you. Because as awful and traumatic as the experience of grief is, it does have a purpose in helping us come to terms with the shock and loss we have experienced.

When loss is not accompanied with some sort of process that allows us to both feel and express our feelings of despair, vulnerability, disorientation and perhaps even relief, those emotions can go underground. But out of sight is not out of mind, they will come back to haunt us if we do not somehow find a way to accommodate and accept the loss that has taken place. (Dr Tian Dayton, Psychologist)

The disenfranchisement of grief is not exclusive to the involuntarily childless. Nor is it experienced by every involuntarily childless person. However, it has been my experience and the experience of many involuntarily childless people I have spoken to. When I finally realised that I was never going to be a mother, I was brokenhearted. Friends and family knew there was something wrong, but seemed puzzled when I tried to explain my feelings. It seemed strange to them that I could grieve for something that never existed, something as abstract as a never-conceived child. But to me, my never-to-be-conceived children and the life I thought I would lead as their mother felt tangible even though they never existed anywhere other than in my hopes and dreams. 

I grieved for the first time my children grabbed my finger with their tiny fists. For their first steps and first words. For the wondrous looks on their faces when they saw fireworks or Christmas tree lights. For first-day-of-term school uniform photos. For pride in them when they were kind. For Calpol and wet flannels on foreheads and wanting to sleep in our bed. For the nativity plays I would never attend. For exploring rock pools and poking sea anemones in the name of science. For eating peaches on the beach with sandy fingers. For red wellies on rainy days. For bedtime stories and endless viewings of Frozen. For shivering on the sidelines of football pitches. For the family dinners we would never have, the caravan holidays we would never take. For helping with homework. For arguments over eating their vegetables. For worrying when they rode their bikes to the shop on their own. For school proms and exam revision and loving them anyway no matter how well or badly they’ve done. For bailing them out when they’ve done something stupid. For empty nest syndrome which I will never experience because my nest will never be full. For shopping with my adult daughter. For cuddles with grandchildren and relief in handing them back at the end of the day. For the mother me, the mother I know in my heart I was always meant to be

Friends and family were kind about their confusion. Strangers, less so. I remember reading an article about the pain of childlessness on a newspaper website and veering from relief that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, to utter despair when I read the comments on the article. Some people commented that if childless people thought what they were feeling was grief, then they’d obviously never experienced ‘real grief’. And that to express their feelings in these terms was an insult to people whose actual, living children had passed away. In my fragile state, I internalised those negative comments and pushed my grief down, tried to reabsorb it and carry on with my life. For a while that worked, but in the end, my grief started to leak out. I spent my days at work sobbing in the toilets. I couldn’t sleep or eat, watch television, enjoy a walk or even read a book. I couldn’t be around pregnant women or young children. I felt guilty about feeling like this, because I had a great job, a lovely house, a wonderful husband and family, dogs and cats I loved dearly and lovely friends. All of these privileges, but that suppressed grief was eating away at me, stopping me from enjoying the life I had.

One day, I was sitting at my computer and these strange, involuntary noises started to come out of my mouth. The noises were guttural, almost like barking, and originated from deep inside me. I couldn’t control them. But then again, I could, in the way that you can sometime stop yourself crying until you’ve left a room and are alone, I could hold off the strange grunting, barking noises at work. But at home they were almost continuous. My husband said they sounded like howls of pain. I started to get the shakes. My torso, head and legs would jerk violently. Sometimes the opposite happened, and my body wouldn’t move at all. One day I was walking my dogs in a field and my legs just stopped working. I fell over in the mud and just lay there, unable to move or speak. Eventually it passed and I walked home with my lovely loyal dogs who had remained by my side. I was referred for investigations and once any physical cause for my symptoms was ruled out – I wasn’t epileptic, didn’t have a brain tumour – I was referred to a psychiatrist. I told the doctor I was grieving for my never-to-be-conceived children. She told me I was just searching for a word to explain my feelings, but that that what I was feeling wasn’t grief because I hadn’t been bereaved, and anyway, motherhood was hard so I wasn’t missing much, or words to that effect. That is how you disenfranchise someone’s grief.

After a long wait, over a year, I saw a counsellor. She was the first person who did not disenfranchise my grief, but instead encouraged me to explore it, helped me to understand that my grief was real and valid and had a role to play in coming to terms with involuntary childlessness. My symptoms are almost completely gone now, except for the occasional glitch when an unexpected baby scan photo on Facebook or a friend I previously thought to be happily childless announces their pregnancy. Because grief is twisty-turny, timey-wimey and you never know when it’s going to pop up and slap you in the face. But I’m a million miles away from that day I was lying in the muddy field, literally paralysed with grief, with my little dogs curled up beside me, and for that I’m grateful.

It’s worth stressing the point that disenfranchised grief is a double-whammy. Grief is bad enough, but a necessary and natural part of coming to terms with a loss. But the disenfranchisement of grief does real harm. But if I had felt able to deal with my grief in a more open and healthy way, if I could have talked about it without feeling ashamed or misunderstood or weak I doubt I would ever have developed the symptoms I did.

I’ve thought a lot about the idea that to acknowledge my own grief is an insult to those who have suffered more tangible losses, that naming my grief somehow minimises theirs. I can speak only for myself, but I would never put my loss on the same level as someone whose child has died (although there are plenty of involuntarily childless people who have suffered multiple, tangible losses through miscarriage, IVF and stillbirth who may feel very differently). But that doesn’t mean my own personal loss is not worthy of being grieved. It’s commonly accepted that the grief one feels for the loss of a parent, for example, is different than the grief one might feel for the loss of a child. But nobody grieving for the loss of a parent is ever accused of diminishing the grief of a person grieving for their child. Both are accepted as valid even though they are very different. I like to think of grief as coming in different shades, different colours. My grief might come in a different colour to someone else’s grief, but it’s no less valid and acknowledging that in no way diminishes their grief.

I found another definition of grief that I like a lot. 

Grief is the feeling of reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to discover when I need her [or him] one more time, she’s no longer there. (The Grief Recovery Method)

For me, what I was reaching out for my whole life was the hope and dream of motherhood, the hope and dream of my children. The hopes and dreams are gone now, there’s nothing to reach out to anymore. That is not an inconsequential loss, and I will grieve it no matter what society thinks.

(c) Annie Kirby, 2017 (originally published on The Imagined Mother blog).