Abortion—some pray for the men and women involved, while others participate in marches for life, reach out to women experiencing unexpected pregnancies, or advocate for life-affirming legislation. But even if legalized abortion were to end today, the aftermath would continue far into the future.
There’s no undoing the abortions that have been performed—forty-five million in the United States alone, according to one estimate for 1973 to 2005, with 27 percent of those abortions performed on professing Catholics. And there’s no quick fix for the suffering of the even greater number of people who are affected by every abortion: the child’s parents but also other family members and friends. These men and women often carry secret burdens of grief for years afterwards.
These are sobering realities—and yet, there is hope for these millions who are living with the isolating darkness that may follow an abortion. Because of “the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78), the healing light of Christ can touch and transform them. And through our love and compassion, you and I can be messengers of God’s mercy to them. We can tell them: If you have been touched by abortion, whether your own or that of someone close to you, there is hope for healing.
Pathways to Healing. It was this very message that set me on the path to healing after my own abortion and years of silent suffering. When I became desperate enough to share my pain with a friend, her compassion gave me courage to reach out to an after-abortion healing program recommended by my church. Finally, I could grieve the loss of my child, seek forgiveness, and find restoration.
From my own experience—and the experience of so many others—I have learned that healing comes in stages over time, not in neat, predictable steps but in messy circles that typically move in a spiraling cycle, tightening and relaxing and sometimes overlapping. Everyone goes through the process differently and at their own pace. Still, there are identifiable “tasks” of grieving that mark progress.
To illustrate what I mean, I’ve drawn from the experiences of three people. (Their stories are real, but their names have been changed.) Jim is a single man who decided, with his girlfriend, to abort their child. Maria made the same decision with her husband. Nancy is a mother who learned about her daughter’s abortion only after it had taken place. Their stories of healing can help equip us to support other people on the pathway to wholeness—or, if necessary, to travel it ourselves.
Tell the Story. An important initial “pathway” to healing is simply to acknowledge that the abortion is real and that it’s significant. For some people, this realization comes right away. For Jim, it took seventeen years.
“I was at my brother’s dining table with my niece and nephew,” he says. “In an instant, I had a searing flash that there should be and could have been one more at the table with us, the child that my girlfriend aborted many years before.” Jim hadn’t thought about the experience for nearly two decades, but suddenly he was grief-stricken.
First, he wrote down his story. Then, he talked with a friend about it. “It was the first time that I had spoken of the abortion out loud.” Finally, he shared his story with a priest during Confession.
There are many ways to tell the story. Some prefer to journal about it privately through words or pictures. Some tell a close friend or relative. Others post their stories anonymously on Web sites like the two mentioned below. The important thing is to tell it.
Build Support. People who are moving through the process of grieving need support, but since abortion is such a traumatic and often secretive event, people can find it difficult to approach a family member, friend, or support group. Shame may play a part, or the desire to protect the identity of others involved. And sometimes, the people who should extend support are unable to give it.
When Maria tried to talk with her husband about her grief over their abortion, he told her, “If it’s over, it’s over, so there is no reason to talk or think about it.” She sought professional help, but the therapist made light of the abortion’s impact on Maria’s life. Maria eventually found an after-abortion healing group that provided the support she needed—but only after nearly thirty years of emotional pain.
No one has to suffer alone. Outreaches like Abortion Changes You and Project Rachel can help people connect with healing groups, Bible studies, weekend retreats, and helpful therapists. It may take time to find the right support—or to become a support for someone who is hurting—but it’s well worth the effort.
Acknowledge Emotions. After an abortion, some people simply deny or repress any emotions surrounding their loss. This may work for a while, but at some point, these emotions need to be expressed, or they will lead to even more problems. In my case, stifling my emotions contributed to my falling into depression and an eating disorder.
My reaction was extreme and required a therapist’s help. But most people touched by abortion can explore their emotions in a more low-key way.
Nancy, whose daughter had an abortion, says she was “angry, disappointed, and became sad, very sad,” when she learned about it. But Nancy had trusted friends who listened to her, prayed with her, and continued to support her. With their help, she was able to arrive at a place of peace.
Identify Losses. Most people will acknowledge that abortion involves the loss of a child. But there are other losses as well. Losing a grandchild, brother or sister, niece or nephew; “losing” God through anger or distancing; losing self-esteem or dreams and goals—these are only a few of the multiple losses that abortion may entail.
Jim, who played a part in his girlfriend’s abortion, began to wonder “what the child would have become.” He saw that in losing a child, he had lost the opportunity to be a loving parent. When he became his mother’s caregiver after she had a stroke, Jim recognized another loss: He would never receive the love and care that his child could have given him. “I was so happy that Mom had someone to care for her,” he says. “How sad it is to have taken away the possibility of having a child see me through my own last days.”
It’s difficult to identify and accept losses like these, especially if the prevailing culture tends to deny grief and promote quick and efficient ways to deal with it. But there’s no bypassing the need to grieve and to feel the pain. It’s the only way to move ahead.
Let Go of the Pain. Essentially, this means making the decision to heal. And this isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
Sometimes people get used to living with the pain of abortion; sometimes they hang on to it as a way to remember the loss; sometimes they feel that they deserve to suffer. In order to heal, however, it’s crucial that they let go of any anger, hurt, or other harmful emotions toward themselves or others. Because this task may be more than a person can manage on his or her own strength alone, this is often the point where they turn to God for help—if they haven’t already.
Maria, for example, knew that God had forgiven her for her abortion. But she just couldn’t forgive herself. She tried journaling, reading, and praying. Finally, she sought out a priest with a special healing ministry:
He led me through a meditation of being introduced to Jesus by one of his disciples. I got down on my knees and cried as Jesus prayed over me for healing and forbade that spirit of guilt and shame to bind me any longer. I was healed. After all those years, the darkness lifted from my heart.
Memorialize the Decision to Heal. I encourage men and women who have moved through the grieving process to find some tangible way of marking their decision to heal. Some volunteer to help people in need. Some write a poem or create a work of art. Some, like Nancy, find a place or ministry that commemorates children lost to miscarriage or abortion. “Our pregnancy care center placed a statue of Jesus looking lovingly at a mother with child in our cemetery for unborn children,” she says. “I placed a memorial there for my grandbaby, Michael.”
Memorializing doesn’t mean forgetting about the abortion. It means being able to remember it without paralyzing guilt or pain. Nor does it mean that the healing process is over; it simply signifies the willingness to complete the journey, even if the old emotions return.
Messengers of Hope. As all these stories show, there is hope! For everyone who is suffering the aftermath of abortion, there are pathways to healing.
And so, as you spend time with Lord every day, will you pray for the people who are making this journey to wholeness? And as you have the opportunity, will you be the mouth, the hands, and the heart of Christ to men and women who desperately need his healing touch? You can make the difference. n
Michaelene Fredenburg is the founder of the Abortion Changes You® Outreach and author of the book Changed: Making Sense of Your Own or a Loved One’s Abortion Experience. For additional resources, visit http://www.AbortionChangesYou.com and the Web site of Project Rachel: http://www.hopeafterabortion.com.