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.
It is this tension of emotions — relief and sadness — that disrupts a woman’s overall life and well-being. Unless she finds a safe place to talk and cry she will probably live her life with a mask on, keeping her secret neatly tucked away out of fear, condemnation or invalidation.
We have a saying in the world of therapy. “Secrets kill.” Thus is the path of many women after abortion. Don’t talk. Don’t feel. Keep the secret. Get on with life.
What women can do to recover from an abortion
Women do not need to stay in this self-imposed prison of silence. I can personally “shout from the mountain tops” that there is good news of peace, well-being and closure after a choice decision. The following are some steps a woman can take to help herself recover from an abortion:
- Find a safe place to talk, share your story and even to cry. There are people to talk to who understand that your desire to process the grief surrounding your abortion is a separate issue from legal battles or political debates. Understand that you simply must share your secret with a caring person. Keep in mind that you should stick with the referrals we list. Sometimes going to a good friend or unqualified source only brings you more invalidation. I went to three professionals who did not understand my situation. Two validated my choice but not my grief. One condemned my choice and completely invalidated my grief. So make sure you move toward safety and caring and compassionate people who understand abortion grief.
- Admit you can’t keep the secret anymore. As in any path to healing from life altering situations, it is important that you be honest with yourself and give yourself permission to re-visit the “abortion-box” no matter how long you’ve had it stashed away. Consider the truth that keeping the secret is requiring much more energy than you have available to give to it any more.
- Give yourself a break. Many times if we can’t find others to condemn and punish us, we will take over the job ourselves! Understand that abortion can involve many losses even separate from the pregnancy. Give yourself permission to label the losses and feel the emotions of those losses.
- Don’t confuse the legal, political and religious debates with your own personal journey. If you listen to all the rhetoric from both sides you will become paralyzed with fear and confusion. Know that walking out of the darkness and into the light of healing will free up space in your mind and heart to put towards positive outcomes in your life.
- Be encouraged! Break free from your secret and LIVE.
Professional help available for recovery from abortion
A good way to begin the healing process if you’re just dipping your toe into the water would be to start with the self-help plan detailed in my book. C.P.R. ~ Choice Processing and Resolution is the first self-help book that talks ONLY about the grief component of an abortion choice. It incorporates a professional therapeutic model in a non-condemning, non-judgmental way. This workbook reaches out to all faiths and cultures with caring and compassion. C.P.R. is like a “first aid kit” for the natural grief that follows a choice decision. It is available from Amazon.com. Just choose “books” on the navigation bar and type in “help after abortion” and you will see it in the book listings. You can go to the Web site www.sadafterabortion to read more about C.P.R.~ Choice Processing and Resolution.
If you are seeking a group counseling setting, there is a non-profit organization called Abortion Recovery InterNational, Inc. (ARIN) that has done a good job compiling listings of abortion recovery groups and counselors. All affiliates hold client information in strict and absolute confidence and sign an agreement they will not engage in any communication that might cause shock or emotional distress. You can visit their online care directory at www.abortionrecovery.org to find confidential support groups in your area.
Additionally, you can just type in “help after abortion” on Internet search engines to find all the organizations involved in abortion healing.
Photo by Greg Hayter, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
Trudy M. Johnson, M.A., LMFT is the author of Choice Processing and Resolution. Her website is www.sadafterabortion.com.
Trudy M. Johnson, M.A., LMFT. (2013). Understanding Abortion Grief and the Recovery Process. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/understanding-abortion-grief-and-the-recovery-process/