Pain After Abortion: Disenfranchised Grief

Grief is a strange thing. It doesn’t always make sense the way we want it to. Society tells us when grief should happen and when it shouldn’t. For example, grief often happens after a breakup. And that’s normal, right? We have so many movies about it: images of teens crying into a bucket of ice cream, rom coms that go from love to heartbreak and back to love again. On the other hand, we don’t really talk about the grief of a friendship ending suddenly, without explanation. Friendships can be super deep, life-long even, and then boom– ghosted. Cut short for something petty, or worse yet, for no reason at all. No explanation given. Friendship breakups can cause cycles of grief the same way romantic breakups can. But society doesn’t really offer a common space to grieve one the way it does for the other. This is an example of disenfranchised grief.

Abortion, Miscarriage, & Pregnancy Loss Grief

Another form of disenfranchised grief is pain that comes after pregnancy loss, whether that’s an intentional abortion or a miscarriage. Abortion is a hot topic in society, but it is more than just that. It is a reality lived by many. In fact, data shows that as many as 1 in 4 women in the United States will have had an abortion before their 45th birthday (1).

Abortion experiences are not all the same, and each woman has her own story to tell. For many women, the first emotion experienced post-abortion is relief, but that relief can change into more negative feelings. Whether immediately or much later, many women experience deep feelings of grief. In this blog, we will explore more about the grief that can come after termination of pregnancy, and how to show compassion for yourself and others who may share this experience. 

Most women who have an abortion don’t expect to experience strong emotions afterward. When we don’t expect a loss, it complicates our grief. A woman who thought having the abortion would “put everything back to normal” might find herself unable to get out of bed. She might experience long bouts of crying. She may start to feel a little crazy if there are people around her–who supported her choice–wondering why she’s reacting like this. She herself might not even understand why she’s reacting like this.

In our culture, there’s no expectation for grief after any pregnancy loss, let alone a place for abortion grief. Because it’s such a cultural taboo to talk about it, many women feel obligated to keep these emotions to themselves. That can result in isolation, anger, depression, relationship problems, or even suicidality.

Some Basic Abortion Information

A quick Google search for the definition of abortion will show you that abortion is “the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy.” A few different types of abortion exist. The first is medication abortion, FDA-approved during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Also known as the abortion pill, this type of abortion is growing increasingly more common and preferred among those seeking abortions. A two-step series, the first drug (mifepristone) blocks progesterone to the pregnancy. The second drug (misoprostol) causes the pregnancy to be expelled from the uterus, thus completing the abortion process. Although abortion pills are available online, ordering these pills without first seeking the evaluation of a medical professional poses a greater risk to your health

The second type of abortion is surgical abortion, a procedure that ends the pregnancy by having it physically removed from the uterus by a medical professional. Surgical abortion can take place at a later gestational age than medical abortion, but abortion access varies across the United States. Different state bans on abortion exist depending on gestational age and other circumstances.

Maybe this feels like a lot of information. Don’t worry, we’ll summarize: basically, abortion is the termination of pregnancy. Medical abortion does that using pills. This method is unsafe after your first 10 weeks, so it’s super important to know how far along you are before taking anything. Surgical abortion is a procedure scheduled at a clinic, available later than 10 weeks in your pregnancy. Surgical abortion is also available in early pregnancy prior to 10 weeks.

In Massachusetts law, abortion is legal at less than 24 weeks gestational age, with some exceptions available past 24 weeks. What does this mean practically? It means in Massachusetts, there are few to no restrictions to abortion access. As such, many abortions take place in this state. Data from the Guttmacher Institute and the CDC shows that In 2020, an estimated 20.4% of pregnancies in Massachusetts ended in abortion (not counting miscarriages) (2).

With that in mind, understanding abortion-related grief becomes even more important, since so many women in our state have lived this reality. As the abortion pill grows in popularity, more and more women are having abortions at home, alone. A sense of alone-ness can increase the risk of post-abortion emotional pain, as women may feel they cannot share their experience with anyone.

As at-home abortions grow in popularity, so does the risk of women grieving alone.

Abortion Narratives 

One thing to remember about feelings–no one should be able to tell you what you “should” feel. It’s not really helpful, is it? Feelings are feelings, they come and they go as they want. Your feelings are valid, even if they don’t fit within what you think you “should” feel. But it’s also good to remember–even though it’s healthy to acknowledge your true feelings (whatever they are), those feelings don’t have to control you. Your feelings can help you know that something is going on inside you. They can help you see that you might need to make a change or get some help. You can notice your feelings and still choose to realize that you are bigger than your feelings. You own them; they don’t have to own you.  

When it comes to abortion, the story you’ve been told probably depends on your social circle. Maybe you’ve been told an abortion should make you feel empowered. Maybe you’ve been told you should be ashamed of it. Maybe it’s some confusing mix of the two, or something else entirely. But let’s try to take a step back from what you’ve been told you should feel, and examine what you actually feel. 

What happens in your body when you think about your abortion? How does your body react? Our bodies have memories, and they tell us the truth about them. If an experience was traumatic, our bodies remember. Our bodies even remember traumatic events that our minds have forgotten.

How does your mind react to your abortion memory? Are there certain things like seeing a newborn baby or having an OB/GYN exam that make you feel tense and anxious? Why do you think that might be?

Some self-examination will help you begin to understand any impact your abortion experience may have had on you. If you are experiencing post-abortion grief, acknowledging your feelings is the first step toward healing. According to grief specialist David Kessler we all have six “needs” in grief. First is the need to have your pain witnessed and expressed. In other words, you need to talk about it with safe, non-judgmental people who will hear you and bear witness to your experience. You then need to release the burden of guilt and be freed from pain. You need to integrate the pain with love and find meaning and purpose after your loss.

Abortion Grief

Grief is not a mental health diagnosis, rather it’s a natural response to any perceived loss. Still, some symptoms of depression can accompany grief, and grief that lasts a long time without resolution can turn into prolonged grief disorder (3). While there is some disagreement about how abortion and mental illness connect, women with a history of abortion are consistently associated with higher levels of mental illness than those without. Research has also shown that risk factors, such as pre-existing mental illness, can put women at greater risk of increased mental health problems post-abortion (4). Since grief, depression, and prolonged grief disorder are all common experiences among the post-abortive, it is so important to talk about how to process these emotions. Grief is too powerful an emotion to be ignored.

Grief is too powerful an emotion to be ignored.

Signs of Post-Abortion Grief

Although grief looks different for everyone, here are a few signs that you might be experiencing post-abortion grief: 

  • A sense that you’ve lost part of yourself 
  • Feeling detached or numb 
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation 
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of your loss (for example, being around pregnant women or children) 

Grief can transition into depression. If this is the case for you, it is important to seek professional support if possible. Here are some signs of grief that has turned into depression: 

  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair 
  • Changes in appetite and/or sleep patterns
  • Intense fatigue 
  • Lack of ability focus
  • Difficulty enjoying regular activities, including sex

How do I Grieve my Abortion?

Everyone is unique, and so is their experience with abortion. Everyone has a different experience with grief. Each person processes grief on their own timeline and in their own way. So the first step on your journey is acceptance–accept yourself, your reality, your moment, your feelings. Try not to compare your feelings with those of anyone else. We accept you. There’s nothing wrong with you if you experience sadness, anger, hurt, or numbness after an abortion. If you feel these emotions (or something entirely different), it’s okay to accept that. But try to be honest with yourself where you are.

Second, practice self-compassion. How would you show compassion to a loved one in your shoes? Most likely, you wouldn’t be as hard on them as you are on yourself. Think of the love and comfort you would express to another person, and try to extend some of that to yourself. 

Third, seek support. Abortion stigma–fear of what people might think–blocks so many women from seeking the support they need. But you are not alone, no matter how alone you might feel. So much healing is found in community, and there are many support options available to you. Local organizations such as Springwater Healing offer counseling and support group options specifically for the post-abortive. Springwater helps you process your difficult feelings related to abortion experience in a safe, confidential, and professional space. 

Learn more about Clearway’s post-abortion care programs. We offer one-on-one sessions, group classes, and weekend retreats to aid women in processing their grief in a healthy way. As Kessler says, “The hope, in time, is to be able to grieve with love and without pain.”

If you are pregnant and considering abortion, schedule an appointment today to learn more about your options. All appointments are free and confidential.

Reviewed by Amy G., L.I.C.S.W.

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