…a natural response
Coping With Loss and Grief
While many women experience only relief after an abortion, others may grieve for the lost pregnancy. Though the grief process can be painful while you’re going through it, rest assured that the feelings of grief, if allowed expression, should eventually diminish. This guide is written in the hope that understanding the grieving process, and knowing some “handles” for dealing with it, will make the experience more manageable.
There are many reasons for feeling grief and loss after an abortion. Even though many women continue to feel that their decision was correct, they grew up picturing themselves as mothers, and they feel sad that their pregnancy came at a difficult time in their lives. Like these women, you may have formed a picture of your “fantasy child,” and losing the pregnancy may feel more like losing a real person than a potential child. Some women feel a strong sense of identification or bonding with the potential child, and having an abortion feels like losing part of themselves.
Others grieve not only for the pregnancy but also for the loss of an important relationship, or even for the loss of the concept of themselves as “perfect” people who never make mistakes.
Moreover, your body has gone through some of the physical processes associated with pregnancy. As your body returns to a non-pregnant state, hormone changes might make you feel blue. Physical reminders that you are no longer pregnant, such as the return of your period, can bring contradictory feelings of relief and sadness.
The grief process passes through predictable stages. However, grief is personal; everyone grieves differently. Though the order and intensity of the stages may not be the same for each woman, some of the stages you may experience include shock and denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance.
Shock and Denial
Often the first reaction to an unplanned pregnancy is: “This can’t be happening to me!” Some women feel numb or a bit “unreal” on the day of the abortion. Women are often surprised to find themselves crying later. These feelings of shock, denial, or delayed sadness are a natural way of protecting oneself from being overwhelmed by too many emotions all at once.
It’s natural to feel angry or irritable. Some women find themselves snapping at boyfriends or family members. If important people disappointed you, you might feel angry or resentful. Some women feel angry at themselves, or at pregnant women or women with small children. Circumstances seem to have cheated them, and anger is a natural response.
If you are angry at someone close to you, it may be important to express that anger openly and honestly. Remember that a relationship cannot be healed if one is dishonest about feelings. Too often women are taught that forgiveness means overlooking hurtful behavior. Bottling up angry feelings can cause stress. If you have difficulty expressing angry feelings, a book on assertiveness will have many good tips for you.
Many stress reduction books contain helpful sections on how to cope with anger. Relaxation exercises can help reduce the stress anger causes in your body. Lying in a comfortable place and alternately tensing and relaxing your muscles can help. Deep breathing and meditation are also therapeutic. Some women listen to tapes that help them picture themselves in a relaxing place.
Sadness is the emotion that we most often associate with grief. Remember that because abortion can represent a real loss in your life, it is natural to cry and feel sad.
One of the most common mistakes people might make is to minimize your pain. They may tell you to “cheer up” or “be strong.” Many people are uncomfortable with expressions of grief, and that is why they try to “fix” your feelings too quickly or gloss over how much you are hurting.
Both self-support and friends are helpful in coping with grief. You may not be used to being your own best friend. You should make a list of activities that help you feel good, and engage in at least one of these activities each day. Because you are hurting, you need to take especially good care of yourself.
Support from the environment helps many of us cope with the grieving process. Shedding tears and talking over sad feelings with others are therapeutic activities. Friends, spouses, prayer, self-help groups, and therapists are all potential sources of environmental support. If you don’t have anyone you can talk with, you should call the clinic.
Some women benefit by having a “memorial service” for the pregnancy. Others create a “memorial” by doing something important or special for themselves or others, something they might not have done if the pregnancy had continued. This can help give the abortion experience meaning.
If you find yourself thinking about the abortion more than you’d like, you can try a technique called “thought-stopping”. You can say or yell “stop” whenever you have disturbing thoughts and immediately do something different. If you find yourself fantasizing too often about what the child might have been like, you should substitute another fantasy: a baby crying because you had no time to give it, or too little money for food and clothes; a picture of yourself feeling angry, resentful or stressed by children you weren’t ready to have.
It is natural any time you make a hard choice to wonder what it would have been like to have taken another path. Making a choice means losing some possibilities in order to bring others into being. You need to remind yourself of all the good realities you’ve created by making your choice. Some women say that the healthy, happy families they have now would never have existed if they had not chosen abortion years before. Others cherish the education, independence, or self-esteem they were able to develop.
Finally, you might find yourself thinking about the abortion less and less. When you do think about it, the feelings are less painful. You haven’t forgotten about the abortion, but you are ready to move on.
A few women might cling to their grief. They might feel that letting go of grief means they are being disloyal to an old relationship or to the pregnancy. If you feel like this, guidance from an understanding professional might be helpful.
As you have worked through your grief, you have also grown. You might have learned important coping skills. You may have a better sense of your values. And you might have an enhanced concept of yourself as a person who has learned to handle a life crisis with courage and dignity.
Some Final Thoughts
On some days you will feel your loss very keenly. You might try one of the following suggestions on days you’re feeling especially sad.
Find a comfortable spot and let yourself become as relaxed as possible. Take slow, deep breaths and let your body become loose and limp. With your eyes closed and your body relaxed, picture a wise, compassionate “special guide.” Pour out your heart to this person. Listen to the words of wisdom and strength your guide might speak to you.
2. Read and Think
Some women benefit by researching other people’s experiences with grief. Check your local library for books on grief.
- Letting Go, Dr. Zev Wanderer and Tracy Cabot. Warner Books, 1978.
- How to Survive the Loss of a Love, Colgrove, Bloomfield, and Mcwilliam. Bantam, 1976.
- When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner. Schoken Books, 1980.
- Women for whom religion is important often benefit from reading the Bible.
3. A Day Set Aside for Grieving
Choose a day that can be spent in mourning. You should plan a pleasurable evening activity, such as dinner or a movie with a supportive friend. Until that time, give yourself permission to grieve. Listen to sad music and allow yourself to dwell on thoughts of the pregnancy, the relationship, or whatever else you might be mourning. Shed as many tears as possible. This is a day to indulge grief feelings. By evening you may be tired and bored with all this grieving. Now is a good time to enjoy that special activity with a friend.
–Technique suggested by Anne Baker, Hope Clinic for Women Ltd., Granite City, IL.
“Experience is not what happens to a [woman]. It is what [she] does with what happens to [her].”
— Aldous Huxley
“It is only the women whose eyes have been washed clean with tears who get the broad vision that makes them little sisters to all the world.”
— Dorothy Dix
“Whether we experience it or not, grief accompanies all the major changes in our lives. When we realize that we have grieved before and recovered, we see that we may recover this time as well. It is more natural to recover…than to halt in the tracks of grief forever…our expectations, willingness, and beliefs are all essential to our recovery from grief. It is right to expect to recover, no matter how great the loss. Recovery is the normal way.”
— Judy Tatelbaum