Since abortion, abortion law, and abortion rights are hot topics in society, abortion stories are often utilized for a party’s given purposes. This happens on all sides of the abortion debate. Whatever story fits the preferred narrative, that’s the story that is told.
It is an abuse to use these personal stories as weapons to incite division. Personal stories should inspire empathy and connection. A shared sense of humanity, saturated in love and grace. When someone shares their story, it is an act of courage. Our choices and experiences can easily be judged, criticized, and even condemned. When someone takes the risk to share her or his true story, they are acting in great bravery and vulnerability. So how should the person listening respond? They should receive that story with all the honor it deserves.
So, someone you care about just shared with you that she had an abortion. How do you respond?
Uh oh. “I have no idea what to say.” You know that feeling. Like when you see a good friend who’s had a death in her family. You think, “What am I supposed to say? I don’t want to cause her more pain!” What’s the right response?
Maybe you feel shocked, or you may have suspected it for a while. But try to shift your response from yourself to her. Recognize the courage it took for her to share this information. Realize the great amount of trust that she’s placing in you by sharing her story. She’s really stepping out on a limb here, because people have all sorts of emotional responses to abortion. Do you value this relationship? Do you value her in your life? I am sure you do, or she wouldn’t have chosen you as a person to share this with. It can still feel like a minefield as you navigate how to respond to her disclosure. Here are a few tips to help you to engage in a sympathetic and compassionate way with your friend.
Do: Thank her for telling you.
Sharing an abortion experience is very personal. She is probably feeling an immense amount of vulnerability and she is demonstrating that she trusts you. It shows she values your relationship enough to take this risk in sharing her private information with you. Thank her for sharing and express to her that it is an honor she is confiding in you. Still unsure how to do it? try “Thank you for sharing that with me.” Yes, it’s really that simple.
This is not a time to have a big reaction, either positively or negatively. It’s not a time to share your own experience with an unplanned pregnancy or miscarriage. It’s not a time to offer advice. Whether you agree with her decision or not, this just isn’t the time to let her know. All those things might have a place later on, but initially, now is not the time. It is a great time to ask if she’d like to tell you more about her experience. Let her know you’d like to hear more about it. Now is also a great time to just be quiet and just listen.
Do: Love her.
Depending on your relationship, how you communicate your love will look different. All love starts in our own heart and with our own attitude. So check that within yourself. You might be tempted to judge her and her situation… but just remember, you are not in her shoes. So you don’t really know what you would have done or felt in her situation, because you weren’t there. Loving someone isn’t the same thing as agreeing with them. You might believe that what she did was wrong, but ask yourself, have you ever done anything that you believe is wrong? You might be tempted to celebrate her decision and tell her she made the right choice. But that’s really about you, isn’t it? She’s taken a risk in telling you and she is hoping that your relationship can handle a new depth that comes with new vulnerability. Loving her requires that you take a breath and let her know with your body language and with your words that your relationship is still the same.
Don’t: Try to help her.
What? Shouldn’t you try to help someone you care about? Sure… if they’re asking for help. But we can actually make someone shut down emotionally if we try to talk them out of their feelings or push other feelings on them. For example, maybe she is feeling some grief, and you want her to feel better. So, you say, “But that was the best choice for you then” or “Aren’t you glad you’re not still stuck with that guy?!” Whether or not those are valid points, you’ve basically told her that she’s wrong for being sad. If you’re upset to hear that she had an abortion, you might say, “If you’d told me then I would have helped you” or “How could you do that?” Again, whether or not those are valid, what you’ve done is shamed her for the choice she made. She hasn’t asked you for your help; she’s asked you to listen.
Don’t: Violate her trust.
She just told you something you didn’t know. It’s private information. This means that you continue to treat it as private information unless and until she tells you differently. Do not share this information with anyone who might know her. This is true even if you believe it’s for her good or could provide her even more support (see above about not “helping”). For many women, a past abortion is a secret they’ve guarded for years. For others, they may have been much more open about their experience. Just remember, this is not your information to share with anyone!
Don’t: Distance yourself.
It’s human nature, when we feel a little uncomfortable, to want to get away from the situation as fast as possible. When we don’t know “the right way” to respond to someone in discomfort, we sometimes pretend the discomfort doesn’t exist. We might be tempted to physically move away from her (like ‘remembering an appointment you have to get to’) and avoiding her for a while. It could be a temptation to just pull back a little emotionally. We can communicate these feelings unintentionally by leaning away, crossing our arms, and avoiding eye contact. Any distancing will feel to her like rejection, and it may make her feel like she has made a mistake by trusting you enough to tell you.
After she has confided in you, she may want to talk more about the abortion or she may want to stop right there. You can try asking a follow up question if she seems open. Something like, “Have you told anyone else?” or “How do you feel about it now?” When she keeps talking you can just repeat the above steps (see especially, “Love her”). If she gets quiet, don’t push her. If it feels right, you might ask if you could give her a hug.
If you’ve responded to her carefully and with love, she now knows that she was right to trust you with the information. She’ll know that if she does want to talk more about it (now or in the future), or wants some help sifting through her feelings, that you are a safe person for her to go to. This will likely multiply into other areas of your relationship and you’ve set the stage to grow closer rather than further apart. Nice job!
Some Post-Abortion Resources
Everyone’s abortion experience is different. No one needs to tell anyone how they “should” feel. Whatever you feel, that’s what you feel. If the person with the abortion experience is you, it’s important to acknowledge where you are in each stage of your recovery.
Some of you reading this may have faced (or are still facing) emotional challenges related to a past abortion experience. Maybe you feel as though you are grieving, but have no right to grieve something that was your choice. Maybe you just want to talk to someone who can understand you.
You are not alone.
There are many women who have walked in your shoes (1 in 4 women in the United States) and have had one or more abortions, and there are resources available to you to help you process your experience. Grief related to abortion is often disenfranchised, meaning it’s not a form of grief that society validates as normal. “Disenfranchised grief refers to grieving scenarios that don’t align with these expectations. Finding social support and sympathy for disenfranchised grief can be difficult. Even if you don’t receive direct criticism from others, you can internalize the way in which you grieve” (1).
Although abortion grief has yet to be normalized in society, there are organizations working to provide you a safe space to process your experience:
- Support After Abortion is a nonprofit organization that provides individualized abortion recovery care. They will provide you program options so you can choose healing according to your lifestyle, schedule, and beliefs. Through these programs, people hurting from a past abortion experience can break free from negative emotions related to their abortion experience.
- Your Abortion Experience is an online platform that provides space to anonymously share your abortion story and read those of others. It also identifies healing pathways and ways to access help. If you’re not ready to share your abortion story with someone who knows you but it is weighing heavy on you, this anonymous platform could be a good stepping stone.
- Locally, Springwater Healing offers support groups and individual counseling for the post-abortive. Springwater offers faith-based groups as well as groups led by professional counselors following trauma and grief healing models. Their services are cost-free and confidential.
- ClearPast is an abortion recovery program of Clearway Clinic. We offer post-abortion care, including one-on-one sessions, group classes, and weekend healing retreats. All our programs are free and confidential.
Abortion Healing in Relationships
If your experience with abortion had an impact on your emotional or mental health, you’re not alone. And as humans, the best way we heal is, also, not alone. Whatever emotions you are feeling, you deserve to heal and be set free from them.
If you are interested in our post-abortion healing programs, call our office at 508-438-0144 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more. If you are facing an unplanned pregnancy and considering your options, schedule an appointment today for a free pregnancy test, ultrasound, and options information.
Written by Amy G., L.I.C.S.W.