Forbidding the Grief
The Unspoken Pain of Abortion

Theresa Burke
with David C. Reardon
Forbidden Grief: Chapter 3
Reproduced with Permission

The sixty seconds of silence seemed far longer. Dianna stared at me, or perhaps through me to thoughts or memories that were entirely her own. From this strained silence, I already knew the answer to my question. But Dianna needed to voice her answer in her own way. This is why I sat silently, prepared to wait twenty minutes, if necessary, for her to speak first.

Dianna was in her mid-forties, formally and impeccably dressed. This was our first meeting. In our initial telephone conversation she complained of anxiety, periodic bouts of depression, and difficulty in relationships as evidenced by three divorces. She stated that she had failed to make progress with her former therapist and wanted to interview me to see if we had the proper rapport.

Everything proceeded normally during my initial intake questions until I asked, "Have you ever had a pregnancy loss? Miscarriage, abortion, or a stillbirth?"

Another thirty seconds passed before Dianna began to speak in a slow, careful cadence that rapidly became a repeated demand. "Why did you ask me that? I've been to seven therapists over the last ten years. None of them have ever asked me that. Why did you? What made you ask that?"

I could see that my question had aroused a momentary paranoia. Dianna was afraid that I could see too far into her secrets, especially without her permission. I tried to assuage her confusion and fear by calmly explaining that this was simply a routine question I asked all of my clients. Pregnancy loss could be associated with a number of unresolved emotions, I explained. In my experience, many individuals had made tremendous progress once they received support in working through unresolved grief, guilt, or anger related to prior pregnancy losses.

After another brief silence, Dianna's breath slowly escaped and her body sagged into a slump. Her tears began to flow as she told me of her abortion nearly thirty years earlier.

With one simple question, I had opened the door that Dianna had been afraid to touch. I had given her permission to express her grief about an experience in her life that her ex-husbands, family, friends, and seven previous therapists were either too ignorant or too afraid to allow her to share.

Once she received permission to grieve, Dianna made rapid progress in the weeks that followed. Her entire demeanor was transformed. The last time I saw her, she said her goodbye with a smile and a toss of her hand. She had finally rediscovered the sense of freedom and hope that had eluded her for decades.

Normal Grief

Grief is a natural and necessary response to loss. It is a readjusting of one's outlook and emotions which must occur after every loss, large or small. If the loss is large, such as the death of one's entire family, the grief can be prolonged and disabling. If the loss is minor, such as a ten-dollar bet on the football pool, the grief will generally be small and fleeting - if the person who experiences this small loss is emotionally balanced, mature, and experienced in dealing with that type of grief. If these conditions are not met, even a small loss can be experienced as devastating. For example, consider the weeping and raging child who did not win the game of Candy Land. Or remember back to the days or even months of moping and depression when your first love (or infatuation) rejected you, or worse, didn't even notice you. Even when your head said "get over it," it took a long time for your heart to follow.

Through such experiences, we learn how to grieve. Some people can handle grief well. Others cannot. In addition, the ability to grieve can vary dramatically from situation to situation.

Grief is more than a single emotion. It can include feelings of loss, confusion, loneliness, anger, despair, and more. Grief can be overpowering. It can penetrate and darken every corner of one's life. It cannot be turned off and on at will. It does not automatically come to an end of its own accord.

Working through grief requires confronting one's loss, admitting the loss, grieving the loss, learning to live with the loss, and working through the grief to find a renewed sense of meaning or purpose beyond the loss. Each of these processes must be successfully completed in order to resolve one's grief. This is what therapists call "grief work." It is called "work" because it can be a laborious process that takes time and effort. It consumes enormous amounts of physical, emotional and spiritual energy. In order to work through your feelings in a healthy manner, you must actively address them.

Healthy persons learn to respect grief as one of life's most powerful teachers. Through the experience of grief, people can learn much about themselves, others, and the great truths about the purpose and meaning of life.

After an experience with grief, some people will become motivated to help alleviate the suffering of others because of their own new-found insight and compassion. When the grief is associated with the experience of death, it can bring about a reevaluation of priorities. In these and other ways, grieving can lead to a time of personal growth and renewal.

Disenfranchised Grief

When a person experiences a secret sorrow that cannot be shared or confronted, this is called "disenfranchised grief." The term "disenfranchised" means to be denied the freedom or license to do something. In this case, it means being denied permission to openly display one's grief. This makes it far more difficult to complete the grief process, and may not only prolong one's grief but also make it worse. Such "impacted" grief can even become integrated into one's personality and touch every aspect of one's life.

There are many reasons, both internal and external, why people may not feel free to grieve. For example, a sexually abused child may be afraid to expose the abuse because of the threat of severe retribution if she tells anyone about it. The child may also be afraid that if she does tell others, she won't be believed. Or even if she knows she would be believed, she may still fear that others will think she is "bad" or "dirty" for allowing it to happen. Alternatively, the child may simply believe that what she has experienced is normal. Everyone's life is like hers. She should simply learn to accept it. Such confusion, combined with feelings of fear, shame, and guilt, can make it very difficult to grieve the loss of one's sexual innocence - even decades later when the abuse has long since ceased.

In this chapter, we will look at some of the internal and external forces that conspire to forbid the expression of abortion-related grief.

Internal Obstacles to Working Through Grief

One of my clients, Karen, described why she did not talk about her abortion in this way:

I think the reason women do not talk about their abortions is because it was probably the hardest time in their life. I thought if I could suppress my feelings, they would go away. I also think women feel they are not allowed to be upset about the abortion. We have no right to get upset because we did it to ourselves. I am the one who made the decision to abort. I have to suffer.

The obstacles Karen described are very common among both women and men. First, there is the natural tendency to repress or run away from negative feelings. For many people, denial can be maintained for quite a long time. Even when women and men know they have unresolved feelings about an abortion, they will typically face a major approach-avoidance conflict. This means that while they want to be free from their unresolved feelings, at the same time they also know that confronting these feelings will be upsetting and painful. Expressing their feelings is both desirable and undesirable. As a result, they may vacillate between approach and avoidance behaviors. For many, it is like putting off a needed heart surgery until after a nearly fatal heart attack. Delay appears to be a friend, when in fact it can contribute to ever-worsening health.

Second, Karen described the common belief of women that they have no right to grieve over their past abortions. This expectation is often instilled or reinforced at the abortion clinic, where women who cry in the recovery room are often asked, "What are you crying for? Isn't this what you wanted?" Through such questions, abortion counselors are trying to refocus the woman's attention on "the good" that is supposed to follow from her decision to abort. The unintended message, however, is, "You have no right to cry. You knew what you were doing."

Third, Karen's comments reflect the popular view that each of us should learn to bear our pain alone. Perhaps this reflects a bit of the American pioneer spirit, which puts so much emphasis on the ideal of each of us being independent. According to this ideal, a strong person should be able to deal with life's problems without complaining - especially when one's disappointments are the result of one's own choices. In their efforts to be strong, many women and men suffer in silence. But as a result, they suffer much longer than is necessary because they deprive themselves of the comfort and support that can help them heal faster.

A fourth obstacle to healing, for some women, is the unrecognized desire to "make up" for their abortion by hanging onto their grief and guilt. Some women and men mistakenly believe that the only way they can honor the memory of their aborted child is to keep the flames of pain and guilt burning in their hearts.

This is not a healthy or productive mindset. Unfortunately, however, it is rather common. That is why one goal in post-abortion counseling is to help women and men to see how they can honor the memory of their aborted children with positive thoughts - focusing on the day they will be with them in heaven, for example. Post-abortion healing does not mean learning how to forget one's past or one's child. Instead, completing the grief process after an abortion means learning how to understand one's past, including one's good and bad choices, and how to remember one's child in positive ways that renew hope rather than feed despair.

The Fear of Telling One's Story

I remember Pamela, a 47-year-old legal secretary who joined one of our support groups for post-abortion healing. Pamela described her decision to finally deal with her abortion as coming out of the closet. The others in the group nodded with understanding, keenly aware of the risk at which their presence at such a meeting placed them.

When 29-year-old Audrey entered the room on the first night of a post-abortion retreat, she saw an old friend from high school. Even though her former classmate had also had an abortion, Audrey could not bear the fact that someone else knew she was there. She withdrew from the group and informed me she could not possibly stay because of her embarrassment. After I provided several moments of nurturing reassurance, Audrey decided it was more herself than her old classmate whom she couldn't bear to face.

Recovery depends on one's willingness to tell his or her story and transform the pain. This involves dealing honestly with what really happened and recognizing one's feelings about the abortion and its meaning in her life - not necessarily what she wants the meaning to be, but what the meaning truly was in her life.

Becoming aware of the ways abortion affected her is crucial if the woman is to work through her feelings to find resolution and peace. As Kimberly explained:

I was afraid to think about my abortion because I wanted to keep it "numb." I thought if I talked about it, all these emotions would emerge and I would actually realize what I had done. I thought this would make me feel worse than originally. Now I know these feelings need to be dealt with so that I can let them loose.

The Social Obstacles

Telling one's story contributes to healing. But if there is no one willing to listen, has the story really been told? No.

We are social beings. The willingness, or unwillingness, of others to listen to our grief experiences will make the path toward healing either easier or more difficult.

Successful grieving, particularly of major losses, involves a social component. Grief that is shared is easier to bear because it is not borne alone.

This is why all cultures have funeral rites. While the support of family and loved ones is clearly very important, even the kind words and support of virtual strangers can ease one's pain. Why? Because when other people acknowledge our grief, they are also acknowledging the legitimacy of our loss. They are validating our feelings. When we know that others understand and empathize with our loss, we no longer feel alone. When we feel that the burden of our grief is shared by others, we no longer feel powerless beneath its weight. The compassionate presence of others who have survived similar losses strengthens us for the grief work that we must now confront.

In addition, we need to know that others care not only about us, but about the loved ones whom we have lost. By sharing our grief, even a little, others show that they remember and love our lost loved ones, if only a little. This honors both our feelings and the memory of our loved ones.

But how do we, as a society, treat the loss involved in an abortion?

Abortion is generally perceived as a woman's choice, something she wanted. Something that was supposed to bring relief, not grief. As described in the previous chapter, the general public does not expect grief, or at least not serious grief, to follow an abortion. Most people simply do not view it as a grief experience that can be equivalent to the loss of a spouse or a parent. Indeed, many assume that it is a big fat zero of an experience - a non-event. The truth, however, is that most women and men experience very real conflicts about abortion. Although they may have consented to the procedure, they hate what they went through.

More often than not, women and men who want to talk about grief over their past abortion will soon feel boxed into a corner. They are afraid to talk to friends and family members who are religious or pro-life because they are terribly afraid of being judged. But if they try to share their pain with pro-choice friends, they will typically hear responses like, "Just forget about it. It was your best choice at the time. It wasn't really a baby yet. You can have another baby some day."

These statements are meant to offer reassurance. But what those grieving an abortion hear is the subtext: "It was nothing. It's over and there's nothing you can do to change it. Why let yourself think about it? Just forget it. It's not worth talking about." They come away feeling that their grief is irrational, unimportant, or even abnormal. As a result, many will try even harder to bury their pain.

But this buried pain is their problem! They want to expose it, work through it, and get beyond it. But they need the support of their loved ones to do this. If a woman is in emotional pain, conversation-stopping platitudes are not the answer. The answer is to let her grieve. Furtive and evasive conversation can only amplify her sense of abandonment.

In abortion, something is lost. Whether one calls it the loss of a child or just the loss of an "opportunity" to have a child, the loss is real. It has to be grieved and released. If friends and loved ones deny this grief, the grief process will actually be prolonged.

"Spare us the Details"

As a society, we know how to debate about abortion as a political issue but we don't know how to talk about it on an intimate and personal level. If we are confronted with another person's grief over a past abortion, most of us tend to mumble, shift about awkwardly, and look for ways to change the topic.

There is no social norm for dealing with an abortion. There are no Hallmark cards for friends who have had an abortion, declaring either sympathy or congratulations. We don't send flowers. We don't have any ceremonies, either joyous or mournful. We have no social customs or rules of etiquette governing acknowledgment of an abortion. Instead, we all try to ignore it.

In the first few days following an abortion, a woman may, if she is lucky, have friends and family members who are truly understanding, sympathetic, and willing to listen. In most cases, however, this opportunity is short-lived. Subsequent attempts by the woman to "dredge up the past" are likely to be discouraged. Too many details, too many regrets, too much pain simply makes everyone uncomfortable. Sharon describes her experience with friends this way:

Friends who appeared to know what was best for me at the time of my unplanned pregnancy now appear afraid and unsure of the person the abortion has made me. If I bring up the subject, they avoid me like the plague.

When Tina initially confided in her sister about her post-abortion pain, her sister assured her that she had done the best thing. Tina explained to me that her sister's response unintentionally silenced her. She felt unable to express herself any further.

If you regret an abortion, nobody wants to hear about it. After all, there's nothing anyone can do to fix the problem. So you have to tell yourself what happened was good - and everyone around you tells you the same thing. After that, I knew I would never bring up the subject again.

After the birth of her second child, Kathy could no longer contain her grief or her secret. She needed to talk to someone, so she told her mother. Unfortunately, her mother did not know how to help her except by encouraging silence and avoidance. Twelve years after the abortion, Kathy contemplated the event and the meaning it had for her. This excerpt is from a letter she wrote to her mother.

Dear Mom,

I'm sorry I never told you the truth about my abortion for so long. I told you I was having minor surgery - female problems. Remember? And what really kills me the most is that you and Daddy came to see me that night in the hospital. You brought me a sandwich in case I was hungry. I was so scared - scared you'd find out what really happened that day. Man, was I hurting inside. And there you two were standing at the foot of my bed extending your love and concern. Mom, didn't you notice I couldn't even look you in the eyes? And over the years the times I turned from you whenever the abortion issue was raised?

I can still see your face the moment I finally told you. Eight years later. You were reading the newspaper and I was holding my newborn. I just blurted it out, trembling from head to toe. You never looked up at me, but I saw the tightness in your throat. I guess I expected you to jump all over me with the "How could you?" But you sat quietly and gently spoke to me. Just as long as I kept my shameful secret, you were willing to keep it too. You wanted to bring it quickly to an end. To get my confession over with and forget about it. But for one split second - just one split second - I felt free. Oh how I wish you had been able to talk about it . . . to cry with me, to help me get through that horrible time. You knew it all . . . but we never talked. I was so desperately alone.

The silence and isolation that typically surround the abortion experience leaves women and men with no place to process their grief. They have no strategy to deal with their feelings about the event. If this has been your experience, or the experience of someone you love, you are not alone.

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