Grieving after an abortion

…since abortion is such a difficult subject, many people tend to deny their abortions but […] abortions cannot be denied indefinitely. Experience shows that abortion needs to be identified and talked about. Unresolved grief does affect both physical and emotional health. Unresolved grief results in pathological mourning. Pathological mourning is a significant cause of depression, self-injury, suicide and psychosomatic problems.
Dr Philip Ney

The need for compassion

If you are grieving after an abortion, we understand what you may be feeling. It can be a place of loneliness, isolation and despair, into which no light seems to shine. We believe, and we have found, that there is only one way out of that darkness: first by shining the light of truthfulness onto one’s experience and then the light of loving kindness and compassion.

The grieving woman who has had an abortion is the first to condemn herself, often not seeing the complex web of societal and environmental factors that led her into it. Women often say they feel they are beyond forgiveness. Other people were involved in the abortion, directly or implicitly, but she often feels solely responsible. Paradoxically, this self-blame can exist alongside angry rage at others’ involvement. Every woman suffering after an abortion needs essentially to work her way free of suffocating guilt so that she feels she is liberated of its oppressive weight. This is a journey, and it is a painful journey – but there can be peace and acceptance at the end of it.

The need to grieve

You may feel frightened of the painful feelings that can arise after abortion; that is natural and understandable. But the need to be heard and understood is a fundamental human need, perhaps one of the most fundamental. People grieving after an abortion have very few places to take that grief, but for those who are experiencing it, it must be given voice and expression. That, too, is a fundamental human need after the loss of someone one loves. Before an abortion, a woman will not be told that this is her baby and that she needs to say goodbye. She will not be asked whether she is prepared to make this letting go and whether she is prepared for the grief that may come afterwards.

Denial and repression are common reactions after an abortion. We do not use those terms judgementally. Denial is also a coping mechanism that allows one to survive and function; our surroundings, too, will not be slow in urging us to “get on with our lives”. But an abortion is unfinished business as long as it is not brought to the surface and grieved. A woman has to do this in her own time and in her own way; as in every therapeutic process, she has to be ready to do so. Trying to break someone else’s denial is a violent tactic that is usually unproductive or counter-productive.

The need to humanise the loss

The social denial around what happened means that no-one, or almost no-one, will allow you to talk about it afterwards. But in order to grieve, and in any way to move through the experience, you need to humanise the baby you have lost, name it, hold it in your heart and then begin the process of grieving her or his loss, as well as the loss of the person you would have been, and the life you would have had, if you had given birth. You need to seek out people who are equipped to help with it. The baby’s existence needs to be acknowledged for grief to take place. This statement has come to be a very controversial one, but it should not be. It should be a simple matter of therapeutic wisdom. A significant loss needs to be grieved.

The need to find people to allow the grief

Going to a private therapist or counsellor or a doctor for help with grieving after an abortion can be a minefield, as Theresa Burke sets out in her book, A Forbidden Grief:

The interaction between therapists and women who have experienced abortion is obstructed by unspoken secrets, fears and political biases. It should be no surprise that because of their own psychological needs, many counselors simply don’t want to delve into the subject of abortion. If they do, some prefer to quickly reassure clients that they did the best thing and thereby close off any further expressions of grief. This occurs because many counselors have neglected to identify their own fears and anxieties that might be aroused by such conversations.

Many therapists have been involved in an abortion themselves. Others have encouraged clients to abort or have given their therapeutic ‘blessing’ to the abortion option for clients considering abortion. This is often done out of ignorance of the research that shows that women with prior psychological problems fare poorly after abortion…While some therapists may simply be ignorant of these undisputed findings, others simply ignore or disbelieve them for their own psychological or political reasons.

The need to break isolation

The isolation that can arise after abortion is almost one of the most damaging aspects as a woman opens up to the most painful experience known to human beings – the loss of a child – while being locked into the shame and silence that almost always surrounds abortion. Seeking out the fellowship of compassionate people who understand can be key to a woman’s journey to a renewed life. We are all social animals, who need validation and understanding from our fellow human beings, as Theresa Burke also explains:

Healing can only happen when the isolation and secrecy are dismantled, and one’s story is revealed to others who do not seek to judge or condemn. Only then is it finally possible, with the support of a small community of others who compassionately affirm the loss and respect the grief, to grieve one’s losses to their fullness. The importance of social support to the grief process reflects an important aspect of our human nature. Though we are individuals, we are inescapably social beings. The lack of social support will degrade or destroy our well-being. Conversely, the experience of social support, in even a single relationship, can strengthen our well-being.

For most of us, it is only when we have the support of others who will not judge or condemn us that we feel safe from social rejection. This support makes it easier for us to confront and explore the deepest part of our souls. With it, one learns how to accept forgiveness from God and one’s aborted child. With it, one learns how to extend forgiveness to oneself and others. And with it, one discovers how the most difficult, soul-breaking experiences imaginable can be used as the foundation for building a richer, deeper, and more meaningful existence.

The need to find a support group

Many of the post-abortion recovery groups, online and in person, are Christian-based. On the other hand, the non-religious post-abortion support forums usually have a policy that bans women from using terms such as “baby” and from stating that abortion is ethically wrong. This website is partly a response to the need to fill the gap for something between those two positions. If we feel there is sufficient need, we will create a support forum and possibly online recovery groups for women and men who might not be Christian but who need to grieve and to work through the loss of a baby, with all the feelings of guilt and anger that arise, after an abortion. Please let us know if you feel that is something that would help you.

If you are feeling suicidal or seriously depressed, please seek help from some of the sources we name in Where to go for help. Post-abortion feelings can be very painful and frightening. You should not carry them alone.

The need for a mourning process

We recognise that people grieve differently, in their own ways, and that different people are at different stages of grieving or understanding their abortion. From our experience, there are some important steps in the grieving process that need to be gone through. You may find that you need to devise your own ways of recognising, mourning and letting go.

  1. Realise that you are not alone. Others have experienced and are experiencing what you are going through. You are not crazy or strange.
  2. Share your feelings with people who understand and can receive what you are saying.
  3. Be willing to face the truth, in a compassionate manner that is gentle with yourself. You may have made a mistake, for all sorts of reasons, but you can be forgiven and you can forgive yourself. Truthfully facing abortion leads to the recognition that it was an unwise act but we do not encourage anyone to get stuck in a mire of guilt or depression. To feel remorse for something one has done in ignorance is a powerful step in becoming a more authentic, mature and valuable human being who can use painful experience to become more compassionate towards others and oneself.
  4. Honour your feelings. What you feel is valid and needs to be acknowledged and experienced.
  5. Share your story when and if you are ready to do so. Talking about what happened, as honestly as possible, is an important step on this journey when you are ready to make it. You need to tell your story to people who will receive your pain as it is, without dismissing or denying it (‘It wasn’t a baby”, “You did the right thing,” etc). We all need compassionate listening, to be heard and received where we are. This is in itself a very healing source.
  6. Apportion responsibility. For a woman experiencing grief and regret after an abortion, there is a need to feel anger and blame and to apportion responsibility for what happened. Only when this has been faced and explored, can anything approaching forgiveness occur. Again, there are support groups that offer help with this process, although most of them are Christian-based. Forgiveness is something done unilaterally; it does not need to involve others. Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a two-way process that has to involve the person who has hurt you (or whom you have hurt) recognising the wrong and sincerely apologising for it. They may seek to make amends in some way. Only then can the relationship continue on a healthy footing of respect and authenticity. If denial is still in place, reconciliation after abortion is obviously difficult, if not impossible. People involved in an abortion have often had their own experience of abortion that has not been faced and mourned. A woman has to decide whether she can continue a relationship on the basis of unilateral forgiveness alone.
  7. Name your baby and mark his or her loss with a memorial. People almost always instinctively know the sex of the baby and readily have a name for him or her. Many women are helped by holding some kind of ceremony for their lost baby in which, for example, a message in a box is placed into flowing water. You can plant a special tree in a garden in memory of the lost child. Some women write and conduct a brief memorial service in which they honour their love for the baby and say goodbye. Tears will come and this is of course completely normal and natural. Crying is a necessary part of grief that brings healing and relief.

The Abortion

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

Just as the earth puckered its mouth,
each bud puffing out from its knot,
I changed my shoes, and then drove south.

Up past the Blue Mountains, where
Pennsylvania humps on endlessly,
wearing, like a crayoned cat, its green hair,

its roads sunken in like a gray washboard;
where, in truth, the ground cracks evilly,
a dark socket from which the coal has poured,

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

the grass as bristly and stout as chives,
and me wondering when the ground would break,
and me wondering how anything fragile survives;

up in Pennsylvania, I met a little man,
not Rumpelstiltskin, at all, at all…
he took the fullness that love began.

Returning north, even the sky grew thin
like a high window looking nowhere.
The road was as flat as a sheet of tin.

Somebody who should have been born
is gone.

Yes, woman, such logic will lead
to loss without death. Or say what you meant,
you coward…this baby that I bleed.

Anne Sexton