Understanding Abortion Grief and the Recovery Process
Note: This is not a discussion of the pros and cons of abortion. Both sides of the argument agree that grief after abortion is real and women must be given their voices back to process the grief.
Pro-choice woman: “Once a woman decides to have an abortion she has to try to cope with her experiences and her emotions on her own. I wish that women could share their stories openly without fear of being judged by society. Abortion is such a hot topic and there are many people shouting loudly on both sides of the argument. Sadly, the one voice you never hear, and perhaps the voice that is most important, is the woman who has had an abortion.”
Pro-life woman: “I might have found healing years earlier had I not been so terrified of the Church. Had I been able to address the pain emotionally, maybe then I would have been able to face the spiritual side of this.”
Have you had an abortion and feel like you have never emotionally recovered from it? Are you unsure about how to go about recovering from the abortion? If you answered “yes,” you are not alone. Many women have the same experience and have never worked through the recovery process. Here’s some input to help you understand common thoughts and feelings a woman experiences after an abortion and the kind of impact an abortion may have. I’ll also share some tips for recovering from an abortion.
Common feelings a woman experiences after abortion
I believe the most common thought and feeling immediately following an abortion is relief.
Unfortunately, this sense of relief is not always permanent. Every circumstance surrounding an abortion experience is as unique as the woman who chooses the procedure.
Sometimes a deep feeling of sadness will set in immediately. Because abortion is a final decision that can’t be taken back, I believe most women, myself included, are forced to go into a period of stuffing down the sadness and getting on with life.
Herein is “the rub.” Combine the emotions of relief and deep sadness and what sort of emotional cocktail do you get? Confusion! The days, weeks, months and years following the decision can result in a lot of confusing emotional distresses. On one end of the spectrum is an overwhelming relief to be out of the crisis, and on the other end there is an amazing depth of sadness that resonates to the core of one’s being.
The impact an abortion can have on a woman’s overall life
What I learned from my personal experience and what I see with the women I work with is that in order to survive the dialectical thoughts of “I’m so relieved and I’m so sad,” a woman has to go into a shut down mode emotionally. Imagine dealing with thoughts like “what made me so relieved also made me sadder than I’ve ever been and what made me sadder than I’ve ever been actually gave me relief.” This thought pattern has no positive return for the person stuck in it.
It is necessary to put these two thoughts and emotions “somewhere.” We build a box in our minds, hearts and souls and vow to never talk or feel about the abortion again. The box eventually becomes a fortress we don’t even dare try to scale ourselves, much less let any other human being touch. Occasionally, there is a chance we will let some of the sadness ooze out. Maybe the anniversary of the procedure or driving by a school yard where children are playing give us leave to experience a small amount of grief. Yet some women consider their choice a “done deal” and they do not dare navigate the thoughts or the emotions of it again.
The majority of the women I’ve worked with have never told a single person about their abortion. This oftentimes even includes the father of the baby, which can sometimes actually be the husband. It has been my experience in my private practice that it takes at least nine hours of therapy before a woman will admit a past abortion. The average time frame I see for women finally being able to process the emotions and grief around their choice is at least fifteen years after the fact. Until the shell of denial breaks around the “abortion box” women of choice live in a strange sisterhood of silence.
Because most in our culture confuse the legalities of abortion with the actual process of resolving the natural loss that follows, there is an implied message that the abortion is the closure. This simply is not true. Women need a safe place to grieve an abortion loss separate from a political or religious discussion.
The impact of not grieving the loss incurred
Abortion choices create a situation of disenfranchised grief in women’s lives. Disenfranchised grief is grief experienced by an individual that is not openly acknowledged, socially validated or publically observed. The loss experienced is real, but survivors are not accorded the “right to grieve” by anyone around them.
A common effect of disenfranchised grief is depression, manifesting itself in small periods of sadness or more full-blown stints of depression. These periods may be accompanied by crying spells and low times of “blue” days.
Unprocessed grief can also cause people to “stay stuck” in anger without even realizing the source of their anger. Not connecting the depression with the unprocessed grief surrounding an abortion choice is typical.
Other ways to avoid “the abortion box” stashed in the corner of one’s mind are medicating the pain with drugs or alcohol, becoming dependent on people and even eating disordered behaviors. It is a known fact that limiting food becomes a way to process grief.
Trudy M. Johnson, M.A., LMFT. (2013). Understanding Abortion Grief and the Recovery Process. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 5, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/understanding-abortion-grief-and-the-recovery-process/