Grief After Abortion: healing from unspoken loss

There are posts that we write here on WYG that travel like wildfire.  In the course of a day or two we see the reach on social media climb, people commenting, sharing and resharing.  We love it, because it reminds us that grievers want to help other grievers.  They want to share help and support and let others know they are not alone.  Color me a pessimist, but I have a strong feeling that today’s post will NOT be one of those posts.  I have that feeling despite the fact that today’s post topic touches over a million women in the US every year.   Why?  Because unfortunately today’s topic is one that is so entrenched in politics and rhetoric that as a society we are often scared to utter the word, to talk about the experience, to acknowledge the emotions, to support one another.  Our fear that even a mention of the A-word will bring an onslaught of comments, attacks and hurt feelings keeps even helping professionals quiet, to the detriment of those who silently suffer.

Whether you are a woman who has had an abortion or a woman who knows someone who has, millions of men and women are impacted by abortion.  The bad news is, despite the huge number of people impacted by abortion (over a million men and women every year in the US), only small subset are sharing their experiences.  The good news is, a small subset are sharing their experience and the abortion grief resources are slowly growing.  This post is not about politics or religion.  It is not about opinions or beliefs.  It is about doing what we value most here at WYG: helping anyone struggling with the pain of any type of loss to find support.

Where do we  begin?

With a disclaimer, of course!  Just like any experience of loss, the emotions after an abortion will differ from person to person.  There is no normal, so don’t freak out if your experience isn’t what you expected, or didn’t look like the post-abortion experience of someone else you know.  This post is about considering the huge range of experience women may have, knowing that you may have all, some, or none of what we discuss.  And that’s okay.

Ok, now where do we really start?

You can’t talk about grief after abortion without talking first about pregnancy.  It may seem unnecessary, because the assumptions is that the grief comes from the termination of that pregnancy, not the pregnancy itself.  But the reality is that many of the complex emotions women are left to cope with begin as soon as a woman learns (or even suspects) she is pregnant.  In the case of an unplanned pregnancy, this is when the fear, confusion, anger, blame, conflict, guilt, shame, isolation, and anxiety often begin.  When a pregnancy is unplanned or unwanted women are often in crisis, feeling overwhelmed by emotions, alone in their coping, and yet facing a tremendous decision.

Rather than having time to process feelings, in cases of unplanned pregnancies women often struggle to make this life-changing decision in a short time frame, while overcome with emotions, and without support.  Women often report fears around sharing the feelings about their unwanted pregnancy, assuming others will be unable to relate and will judge them.  Ironically, data shows that 1 in 2 women have had an unwanted pregnancy.  1 in 2!  With stats like that you would think there would be a more open dialogue about the experience of unwanted pregnancies and tools for coping.  Unfortunately, at a time when it may be especially helpful to have the time to process emotions, think through decisions, and seek support from others we are often left feeling alone with pressing time constraints to make a decision.  In some instances, women share their feelings and find the stigma and judgment they feared, only encouraging them not to seek further external support.

So before we even begin looking at the emotions that can impact someone grieving after an abortion, go back to the feelings that began before the abortion took place.  Start a journal, talk to someone, create art – whatever works for you to acknowledge the feelings that came up with the pregnancy itself.  Take the time you may not have had then to think about how you felt supported, how you didn’t, what emotions were impacting you at the time, what practical needs were impacting you, etc.

Where do we go next?

Give yourself the right to grieve.  One struggle with abortion is that it is a disenfranchised loss, meaning it is a loss that society doesn’t always validate.  You can read all about disenfranchised grief here, and I would strongly recommend you check that post out before continuing.  Understanding disenfranchised loss is (in my estimation) crucial to understanding the experience of an abortion.  For those who don’t like prerequisites, here is the gist: in the case of abortion one of the commonly reported feelings is that people don’t feel they have the same right to grieve the loss because it was their choice or because of the judgment and stigma around abortion.  It is important to remember that, though this loss is not identical to other losses, that does not mean it is not a valid loss.  It is an experience that you have the right to grieve.  It is part of you and your story and it is your right to feel, process, and integrate every emotion that comes with that, the good, the bad, and the complicated.

 Got it. Now what?

Find a mental and emotional space to be with your personal experience, apart from the politics of the discussion.   This is easier said than done, because there is no question our emotions are often intertwined with the politics of abortion.  Even the word abortion can be hard for many women.  In her book C.P.R: Choice Processing and Resolution, Trudy Johnson renames abortion VPT (voluntary pregnancy termination), arguing that the “A-word” brings up so many charged feelings due to its religious and political history that it is helpful to use the term VPT when reflecting on one’s personal experience, differentiating the personal journey from the politics.  Changing the language may help you, it may not.  But no matter what, finding the people and space to look at your experience in an individual, personal and unique way is the first step in seeing yourself apart from the abortion rhetoric.

Understood.  What’s next?

Identify feelings from after the abortion.  The good news?  A comprehensive review done of the psychological research shows having a legal abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy does not “pose a psychological hazard” for most women (Adler et all 1990).  The bad news?  That doesn’t mean you won’t experience grief after abortion and feel a range of complex emotions.  It may be in the short term, it may be in the long term.  Grief is not just one feeling, it is many feelings, and (as we have said many times before) it can feel like you’re going crazy (you’re not, so don’t panic!).  Research has shown that emotions after an abortion can range from sadness, relief, happiness guilt, anger, shame, to a range of other things (Adler et al).  So let’s talk about some of those . . .

Relief

One of the most common emotions reported by women immediately following an abortion is actually relief.  According 2013 data, 90% of women feel relief, in fact.  Relief may sound like a good thing, if you were expecting something like guilt, sadness or regret to be the most common emotion.  But relief is actually quite complex.  On the one hand, relief is a positive.  It can help us feel reassured that we made a decision we can live with.  It can help us to feel hopeful and optimistic about moving forward.  At the same time, it can make us feel guilty, if we worry we shouldn’t be relieved.  Or, it leaves us feeling completely confused when we feel relief and concurrently feel sadness or isolation.  Those feelings may seem at odds, which can leave us feeling conflicted.  And, on top of that, the relief may subside and make way for other emotions.

 Guilt

Guilt is an important and valid feeling that follows many types of loss for many reasons.  In the case of abortion there may be unique feelings of guilt, as abortion is a decision deeply intertwined with our spiritual, ethical and political belief systems.  We have a whole post on guilt, so rather than rehashing I will direct you there to check it out. It include thoughts on guilt and also ideas for coping.  While you’re at it, you can also check out our post on why you should never tell a griever (or anyone else) not to feel guilty.

In the case of abortion there may be especially complex feelings of guilt for some, if they feel the abortion compromised their spiritual, ethical or political values.  In these cases one must work through guilt on all of these levels, seeking forgiveness both from oneself, as well as from a church or a higher power.

For others there may be no guilt (or very little guilt).  In these cases some women feel great that they have no guilt.  Others report that their lack of guilt feels concerning, leaving them worried that they are avoiding in some way.  The reality is that some women never end up feeling intense guilt and that doesn’t mean you are avoiding or a bad person.  It means that, like so many other things with grief, we are all impacted differently.  If you feel no guilt early on does it mean you will never feel guilt?  Nope, it could come up down the road.  Does it mean it will definitely come up for you later?  Nope again.

Shame

As we explained in a post about overdose grief, there are many different ways you will see guilt and shame defined and contrasted against each other.  Here we mean this distinction as a contrast between a personal experience vs a relational experience.  Guilt is something we feel within ourselves, based on our own perception that we could or should have done in a certain situation. Shame is something we feel based on our perception that others think we could or should have done something differently.  In the context of abortion  shame can be an even more prevalent emotion depending on one’s religion, politics, and support system.  As shame is deeply relational, it is important to consider your support system and understand how they impact you.  Need some help doing that?  No problem – we have a post for that!

Isolation

With the combination of guilt and shame, isolation can become a prevalent emotion following an abortion.  Women often feel they are all alone, despite the fact that over a million women have an abortion every year.  Feeling alone and fear of judgment from others can cause many women to stay quiet about an unplanned pregnancy or an abortion.  You can probably see the vicious cycle – we feel alone and judged, so we don’t speak up, so then others feel alone and judged, and suddenly hordes of people are struggling in silence.

What can you do?  Check out that support system post again and consider opening up to friends and family.  This can be risky – we don’t know how friends and family will react.  It is important to be thoughtful about who you’re honest with and it is important to remember that some people you hope will support you may not.  Some people you never imagined will support you might be incredibly helpful. Take a look at this post on grief and loneliness for some other ideas on coping with isolation. If your own support system isn’t giving you what you need, consider a support group or hotline, where you may be able to connect with others going through something similar and talk to people without judgment.  Many women keep their abortions a secret for months, years, or decades and express a feeling of relief and connection when they finally come to a point that they can share their experience.

Regret

Regret can set in right away, down the road, or not at all.  Regret is a complicated emotion in any kind of loss, but has especially unique considerations with abortion.  Research has shown that a week after an abortion 41% of women felt regret, though 89% of those women who felt regret after their abortion still felt it was the right choice.  Regret is not limited to women who had an abortion.  In the same study statistics showed that 50% of women who were unable to have an abortion also felt regret.  And we know regret is common in many other types of losses. In a society that embraces the ‘no regrets’ mindset, it is important not simply to ignore or repress regret, but rather to spend time to understand regret and explore its impact.  Wondering where to start?  Check out our post and journaling activity on loving your regret.  Then check out our post on individual worth and forgiveness.

Sadness

This is probably the most obvious emotion with any loss. The sadness of any type of grief can become overwhelming at times, despite being normal and natural.  Even when a woman feels confident in the decision she made, there still can be sadness about the loss of a future as a mother, with that child.  Grieving a potential future together is a unique type of loss, sometimes called a secondary loss, which you can learn more about here.  It is important to feel and acknowledge sadness, and accept that it is okay to feel this emotion despite the abortion being a choice.  Sadness can be confusing when it comes simultaneously with emotions like relief and happiness, but this is the reality and complexity of grief.

 Holy crap, that’s a lot of emotions.  Anything else I need to know?

Yup, there’s more.  Another important thing to keep in mind is that different emotions may arise at different times, some years later.  These emotions can come up for different reasons and in different ways.  For example, a woman may have an abortion because at the time she becomes pregnant she unable to care for a child.  Though she may grieve in some way immediately, later in life if she is in a position to support a child, or decides to have a child, she may find emotions arising again.  A woman who has children and decides to have an abortion may find at significant moments in the lives of her children she feels pangs of sadness or guilt.  Rather than ignoring these emotions when the arise, it is important to consider that the emotions of a loss may come back up and impact us in different ways at different times in life.  Things we never expect may trigger emotions we never expect at times we never expect, because that is how grief works.  You can check out more info on triggers here and here.

What about men?

This is a great question, and one I neglected to mention specifically in the first version of this article.  As you can imagine, if women are made to feel they don’t have the right to grieve after abortion, men often feel this to an even greater extent.  Men can have all the same feelings as women after an abortion, with all the same challenges for grieving.  Layered on top of that is the unfortunate reality that men are often raised feeling less able to show emotions, feeling they have to stay strong.  On the site ‘Men and Abortion’ you can see some of the research on men’s experience with abortion.  Dr. Arthur Shostak, a professor emeritus from Drexel University, began this reseach in 1983 and continued it in 1999.  In 1983-84 he surveyed a thousand men who accompanied women to an abortion procedure in 30 clinics in 18 states.  In 1999 he surveyed 905 men in 11 clinics in eight states and Vancouver, BC.  In both cases he self-financed his research, demonstrating the limitations in funding and academic interest in exploring this area.  His website and research provides some information and resources for men coping with an abortion. Additionally, there is a book on this topic by Dr. C.T. Coyle called Men and Abortion: A Path to Healing. I have not read this book, so I cannot give it an endorsement, but with the dearth of resources out there it seems worth a mention!

Any Last Thoughts?

Of course, I could go on all day.  But I won’t.  Just want to mention that you may have had an abortion and not be feeling any of these crazy grief emotions.  It doesn’t mean you are a bad person or that you are in denial or anything pathological.  Though many women struggle with complicated emotions after an abortion, there are plenty of women who do not.  You may find emotions arise later, you may not.  Each woman will have her own experience, unique to her.  There is no right or wrong.  It is for this reason that it can be helpful to read the experiences of other women who have had abortions.  If you are interested in reading the experience of other women, you can check out 26 abortion stories here in New York Magazine.  You can share your story and read other stories here, at the 1 in 3 website, named as a reminder that 1 in 3 women have an abortion by age 45, but so few women share their experience with others.  (a disclaimer about 1 in 3 is that they are pro-choice leaning, but encourages women to share their abortion experiences openly and honestly).  You can also share and read stories at Abortion Changes You.

Where can I turn?

Finding resources that allow for a safe space to cope, free from the politics of abortion, can be difficult.  Many website, centers, and books have some sort of political or religious agenda (on either end of the spectrum) which can confuse a woman’s personal experience.  Like with any grief support, it is about researching any resource you explore and finding something that works for you.  Below are some resource that may be of help, but we would love to know what other resources are out there that have helped you.  Leave a comment to let use know!

Exhale is a hotline and website for women post-abortion.  They are part of the ‘pro-voice’ movement, which emphasizes allowing women space to talk about their personal experiences with abortion that is free from politics or stigma. They are a national hotline and offer support in multiple languages.

The Healing Choice is a book by two pyschotherapists about post-abortion healing, based on a combination of research and their experience working with women after an abortion.

Have something to add to the discussion?  Leave a comment to let us know!  And don’t forget to subscribe to get our posts right to your email.

March 28, 2017

10 responses on "Grief After Abortion: healing from unspoken loss"

  1. So I decided to have one at 12 weeks a year ago. It goes against my beliefs and my marriage. I still can’t seem to stop grieving I don’t believe I ever will. I did it because I was the sole bread winner, my husband was a alcoholic and really selfish and abusive. I was terrified to have another child I thought it would commit me to being hurt more. Someone encouraged me to do this and I was forced to stop interacting with them. Well they took that out on me so after I got a lot of gate mail. They told everyone. I was blamed for those people no longer being my husband’s friends. For the choice. A year later I can’t cope it feels like I have no idea who I am and I have no right to grieve but I can’t stop grieving. I could really use some coping tools if anyone has positive input you can email me at [email protected]

  2. Thanks for the post. I have had a lot to deal with especially the stigma. It is a subject that no one takes so lightly.

  3. Oh, it sure must be somewhat a difficult subject just talking about abortion. It’s something that my sister is thinking about talking to her daughter. Well, now that her daughter is a teenager and she does want her to receive some counseling about the topic. http://www.cliniquedelalternative.com/en/abortion.html

  4. Thank you, I read the post because I created a very similar print when I wasaw date-raped. It was important to merge the pregnancy aspect in your post and regret and sorrow years later.

  5. This is a great article, but you should remove the links to AbortionChangesYou.com, which has a clear anti-choice agenda, and Missing Pieces. Missing Pieces is by a Christian pro-life speaker who, according to her own bio page on her management’s website, “weaves her own testimony and also the stories and comments from real clients into abortion statistics that help audiences grasp the destruction that abortion brings women, men and families in our nation.” Your assertion that she doesn’t have a religious or political perspective is untrue (http://www.ambassadorspeakers.com/ACP/speakers.aspx?speaker=814)

    They’re both obvious anti-choice resources that are, in no way, neutral or unbiased. However, Exhale is great, and The Healing Choice appears all right as well.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Hi Margaret – Thanks for pointing that out about Missing Pieces! Someone else referred it to me and clearly I didn’t look into it deeply enough. I am going to remove it. For abortionchangesyou.com, I am going to remove it (because better safe than sorry) but this one is less clear to me. I researched this one in advance, because I didn’t have any knowledge of it other than reading a blog post where someone cited it as helpful, and the site seemed fairly neutral (minus the name, which could be read as negative). The stories on the site are primarily negative abortion experiences, but a lot of the content around creating safe spaces is positive and reasonably helpful. I did see this artice in the NYTs (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/27/nyregion/27bigcity.html) speculating that their neutrality is a ruse. It is a shame that sifting through resources can be this difficult to identify alterior motives – some of the activities you can do on the site are really interesting, it is a shame that things aren’t always what they seem. And, to be fair, there are people who would argue that exhale itself is political by excluding the stories of people who have politics within their stories (http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2013/07/09/why-i-share-my-abortion-story-but-am-not-pro-voice/) though I understand why exhale may feel they need to be thoughtful about this. If anyone has any recommendation on other ‘neutral’ resources PLEASE let me know, as it seems they are few and far between!!

  6. Yes, as a retired proofreader, hard to read. But bottom line: Not ALL pregnancy terminations cause any grief, regret, etc. If the surgeons weren’t allowed to remove my TWO ectopic pregnancies during our fertility treatments, I’d be dead myself. Couple that with the fact that my husband would have been left alone to raise our babies, but then he died at age 34, I can’t find ANY reason to be in “grief”. Nobody I know uses abortion as birth control, etc., but as a LIFE-SAVING MEASURE !! Shame on you for writing this trash. You really missed the mark on this one.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Mom of Three Sons, I am sorry this post missed the mark for you. Just as you mention, I said specifically in the post that many women do not feel grief after an abortion, for many reasons. We absolutely agree there. What I also know is that people do have abortions for other, non-life-saving reasons every day. Not all of those women grieve — many do not. But many do. We wrote this post specifically because we have gotten questions from people who are struggling with their emotions after an abortion, and I have seen it in my practice working with individuals over the last 10 years. As I say in the post, having these complex emotions is not about right or wrong or even the reason for the abortion. Many men and women have complex emotions, despite feeling it was the right decision for medical reasons or for other reason. It is about letting those individuals know it is okay to have complicated emotions, and giving people some resources to support that. I am sorry this post didn’t work for you, and I appreciate you sharing that as I am sure others will relate. But I do strongly believe from the questions we have gotten in the past and others I have worked with that there are some people out there who may benefit.

  7. Good for you.at WYG. I really appreciate this article, even though I’ve never had an abortion. It is a very hard issue to deal with, as you state, partly because of getting around all these issues with abortion itself. I appreciate the way you tackle grief issues in general, and I commend you for undertaking this potentially hot topic. I hope you’ll post this (the article) on Facebook so I can share it.

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