A Time to Grieve, A Time to Heal

Theresa Burke
with David C. Reardon
Forbidden Grief: Chapter 4
Reproduced with Permission

Maura entered therapy for depression and anxiety. At 32 years of age, she had baffled cancer for four years.

Her eyes, swollen from tears, seemed permanently reddened by the profound ache of her grief and loss. The chemotherapy and radiation treatments had taken quite a toll. The smooth surface of her bald head shimmered under the lamp adjacent to her chair. Through the translucent skin that covered her skull, I could detect veins and arteries that protruded from her glossy dome. Above her somber eyes lay a vacant space where her brows had once perched above her lids. Her visage appeared like that of an alien creature. I struggled to get beyond the exterior and relate to her as a friend . . . as a woman.

"What were you like before cancer?" I asked. Maura seemed excited and anxious to share her memories. I learned that she had been a vibrant and active girl who needed little coaxing to get up in front of people and entertain them with jokes, stories, and songs. Before the chemotherapy, long curly locks of black hair had cascaded down her back. She had been popular, and many men had tried to win her heart. Now a caricature of her former self, Maura sat before me and struggled with fears of pain and death.

In therapy her life continued to unravel before me, like an interesting tapestry with brilliant colors followed by shades of somber black and deep hues of blue. Maura recalled turning good men away and engaging in naughty escapades with bad ones. She seemed puzzled by this pattern and anxious to gain self-insight.

She mentioned an abortion, then quickly moved on to the next event. I did not miss her keen surveillance of my response, or the fact that her eyes brimmed once again with tears. My heart filled with sympathy and I acknowledged how difficult such a decision must have been.

"What was the abortion like for you?" I asked.

A barricade of defenses tumbled down as Maura burst into tears. She did not have the luxury of being able to run away from this pain anymore. Her illness had stripped her of any denial or defenses that would normally put the incident out of her mind. Maura told me that I was the first and only one of many therapists to ever ask her that question. She was tremendously relieved finally to have an opportunity to talk about it.

After the abortion the familiar shame and secrecy experienced by many others like her had victimized Maura. She had always managed to avoid lifting the lid of this Pandora's box. But now, faced with the threat of death, Maura could no longer keep it shut. Its contents fueled excessive fears, which had become so dreadful that she slept in her parents' room every night. She bore a hellish fear of being alone in the hour of her passing. Maura was terrified of judgment.

I placed my hand on her shoulder and assured her that she would not be alone. Together we would explore the hidden fabric of her life and bring her secret to the light. With reverence, we gently went back to the abortion, and Maura began to express some of her long-repressed feelings of anger, shame, abandonment, guilt, and despair.

I don't deserve to live

That night, Maura confessed the abortion to her mother. She blurted out the entire sequence of events, which had occurred over a decade earlier, as if they had just happened. Her mother felt devastated that her daughter had gone through this pain alone for so many years, and they wept together.

Maura utterly believed that God had given her cancer because of the abortion. She was certain that cancer was her due punishment.

"God does not work that way," her mother tried to reassure her, but all the guarantees meant nothing to Maura.

"I don't deserve to live," she said. "Why should I live when my baby did not?"

Maura demonstrated a type of survivor guilt. She believed that she had done wrong, and despite promises that God understood and could forgive her, she felt despair, grief and hopelessness about a life she didn't feel she deserved to live.

Certainly forgiveness is at the cornerstone of all Judeo-Christian religions. Despite the fact that the Old Testament patriarchs repeatedly fell into grave errors, the Torah speaks of God's unending love for his chosen people. The message of God's mercy is the very heart of the life and teachings of Jesus and the foundation of all Christian religions. Even the Eastern religions emphasize the need for inner harmony. In a broad sense, all religions teach that the goal of our spiritual journey is to reconcile our pasts and find peace. But Maura's sense of guilt and shame were stronger than any notion of God's mercy and compassion. Her lack of inner tranquillity after the abortion was still quite evident.

The connection between stress and many diseases, such as heart attacks and cancer, has been well-documented. While cancer is not a punishment sent from God, we cannot underestimate the role that stress and some of the acting-out behaviors that followed Maura's abortion played in disrupting her immune system.

After the abortion, Maura began to drink heavily. Her diet was poor at best. Between alcohol and "life in the fast lane," her body began to break down. Most significant in this case, however, was that when Maura first discovered a lesion (which turned out to be cancerous), she waited nearly a year before she consulted a doctor. This clearly revealed a lack of self-care, which can be traced directly to low self-esteem, and quite possibly, to an unconscious desire for punishment.

Maura also believed that if she had given birth to a baby, she would have changed her lifestyle. She would have been forced to take better care of herself because her child would have needed her.

While focusing too much on such ideas could drive someone crazy, these thoughts were very real to Maura. She tortured herself by obsessing about different things she might have done to prevent the cancer from pillaging her life. Since we could not undo the past, we focused on healing the present. For Maura to move toward death peacefully, reconciliation was imperative.

An angel named "Joey"

Maura had identified her loss. Now she could begin the grief work she had never been able to face.

The following month, Maura attended a Rachel's Vineyard Retreat for healing after abortion. She was grateful for the experience of meeting others who shared similar feelings of grief. A sisterhood developed among all the participants as they set aside the tedious ideologies of choice, reproductive freedom, and stoicism for a weekend of soulsharing, devoid of pretense and disguise.

Maura invited her family to attend a memorial service during which she honored her aborted child. Her family did not have the opportunity to support her during the crisis of pregnancy because Maura had kept it a guarded secret. However, she wanted them present as she sought to reconcile the abortion. She was tired of secrets and had neither the time nor the energy to spend on them.

Such memorial services are always emotionally overwhelming. The beauty of Maura's family gathering with her in grief was something I will never forget. Her five siblings attended the ceremony and wept together with their sister. Her mother and father also accompanied her and shared in her pain at the loss of their grandchild. Finally, Maura's isolation was shattered. She was not alone any longer.

That weekend, Maura reconciled her abortion with her Creator and herself. She named her baby "Joey" and imagined him as a little angel who was now coming to offer her peace and forgiveness.

After the retreat, she no longer felt compelled to sleep with her parents. When she embraced in spirit and love the memory of her liffle child, she laid to rest a tremendous amount of anxiety.

When I went to visit Maura after she had surgery for yet another tumor, the doctor told me she had only a few weeks to live. Her tu~nors were growing with a vengeance, and only frequent doses of morphine could alleviate her suffering.

Maura had fought a long and brave fight against cancer. But the knowledge that God loved and forgave her, and that in death she would be united in spirit with her sweet baby Joey, with whom she longed to be reconnected, pactfied her fears of death.

The beauty of this reconciliation came back to me when I attended her funeral. At the casket I looked lovingly down at Maura. She looked so beautiful and peaceful. Her hair had grown almost two inches since the cancer treatments had ended. I combed my fingers through her hair and gently touched her cheek. Her lips were sealed tightly, never to speak of the mystery of passing. I felt a great love for Maura. We had surpassed the confines of a therapeutic relationship as her spirit began to soar toward an imminent death.

As I sobbed at Maura's coffin, I remembered holding her hand as she wept at the memorial for her child lost through an abortion. The peace that followed that expression of grief and her ability to share that grief with her family and have it validated with honor and respect was inspiring.

I bent down to kiss her forehead as a frail attempt to convey my final farewell. Although my heart ached with pangs of grief over such a beautiful life cut short, my faith gave me the hope that she was reunited with her son and joyfully welcomed by a merciful God who loved her. Despite this conviction, I experienced pain.

While in line to extend my condolences, I felt like an intimate member of Maura's family, although I had only known them a few months. The tight and unreserved embraces I received conveyed an unspoken sense of the sacred journey on which I had accompanied their daughter and sister. We would all miss Maura.

Bereavement counseling has taught me not to feel ashamed of my grief. I used to be the type of person who ran from funerals. When I saw someone cry, it triggered my own mourning and fears about losing someone I loved. I was afraid to make my nose red with crying or cause my mascara to smear. I wanted to look neat and pretty and in control. Yet there is something quite liberating about allowing yourself to feel and express the sadness instead of swallowing it and pushing it back down into your gut.

Grief can be healing. It signals our living and feeling in connection with others. It represents our vulnerability, our humanity. When we remember and mourn our losses, we free our souls to move beyond the pain. This is the purpose of funerals. As difficult as they are, they provide a public expression of our grief, a way to say goodbye while surrounded by friends and loved ones, and a place to remember with dignity our lasting connections to one another.

Women who undergo abortions are never permitted this social connection. Abortion is a death. For many, it is as dramatic and poignant as any situation where a mother suffers the loss of a child born years ago. What hurts so much when a baby dies is the awareness of the life unlived, the lost potential, the existence cut short. There is always a profound ache of grief when death takes someone young from the world. That pang is greatly intensified in a person who feels that the death could have been prevented or who feels responsible for that untimely death.

Maura lived her life running from the grief and guilt she carried in her heart. She actually believed that she did not deserve to live. By grieving her loss, naming her baby, making it real and claiming her pain, she discovered strength and hope. This process enabled her to resolve her guilt and be at peace with what had happened to her. She called Joey her little angel. By acknowledging his life, Maura became connected to peace, love, and ultimately, her Creator.