I remember my abortion like it was yesterday. Sitting in the cold waiting room of Planned Parenthood, my partner repeatedly squeezed my hand as I tried to hide my face from those sitting close to us, holding back tears. I was unexpectedly pregnant, but we were in a long-distance relationship while I was in graduate school halfway across the country. There was no imaginable path for us to become parents 2,000 miles apart. However, despite our circumstances, I wanted the baby—or the small clump of cells that would one day become a baby—so much that I felt it in my bones. The yearning was so overwhelming that I can barely describe it. But I simply could not drop out of school or juggle motherhood with my upcoming comprehensive exams. So I walked into the examination room and swallowed that fateful pill, ready to move on from this emotional but brief road bump in my life.
There was no way that I could have been prepared for what happened next. I took the second pill at home, which was described as causing “period-like cramps,” but quickly was in so much pain that it felt like I was dying. I bled for weeks afterward and cried every day for at least six months, measuring how far along I would have been in the pregnancy.
While those around me went about life as usual, my world had turned unrecognizably dark, lonely, and confusing. I tried Googling what I was feeling and only found religious materials demonizing abortion, while an OB/GYN just shrugged at my question if it was postpartum depression. No one around me understood the gravity of what I was going through. My partner tried, but it was not their body or their grief. They couldn’t feel it.
It wasn’t apparent at the time, but it turns out that I was far from alone. When we asked the TalkDeath community about their experiences with abortion grief, we received a flood of responses. They described having to terminate nonviable pregnancies, escaping abusive partners, not wanting to become parents, living through complex medical situations, being unable to afford supporting a child, and painful emotional and physical effects.
The decision was wrenching for some and straightforward for others. Almost all said that abortion was 100% the right call for them. However, even when there are no regrets, the post-abortion phase is not always uncomplicated—something many felt like they could not openly express, given the stigmas, hostility, and hyper-politicized debates around the procedure.
Abortion and the bodily autonomy it represents is an unequivocal right for those of us who can get pregnant, but those who have had complex experiences and grief have too often been made to suffer silently in a culture where bodies and healthcare are still up for a debate. However, here at TalkDeath, we want to discuss this hard and messy topic to both normalize and make space for everyone’s stories. If you’ve found your way to this article because you’re having a difficult time, know that you are not alone. This is for you.
What is abortion grief?
Nearly 1 in 4 people capable of becoming pregnant in the United States will have an abortion by age 45. Previous surveys have found that an overwhelming majority have positive experiences, including feeling relief and confidence in their choice. That is unfortunately not true for everyone, though, and the causes are heavily contested. Some have theorized that abortion grief is partially caused by interruptions in the hormone cycle, similar to those that occur after an unplanned pregnancy loss.
Psychologists have also debated people’s risk for post-procedure depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. However, little evidence supports that abortion directly leads to these adverse effects. In fact, a 2008 report from the American Psychological Association found that those more at risk for distress post-procedure experienced it due to social stigmas and factors such as:
- Perceived pressure from others to terminate a pregnancy
- Terminating a pregnancy that is wanted or meaningful
- Perceived opposition to the abortion from partners, family, and/or friends
- Lack of perceived social support from others
- Feelings of stigma; perceived need for secrecy
- Exposure to antiabortion picketing
Everyone’s situation is unique, and there are many other reasons someone might experience abortion grief. But what is it, exactly? Abortion grief does not have a standard definition, but it can be understood as a natural response to a loss: of a pregnancy, of someone’s life circumstances, of the person they were before the procedure. It can be common—and normal—to experience a bevy of unexpected emotions and reactions, including depression, anger, reliving the pregnancy or procedure, yearning, difficulty eating and sleeping, fatigue, guilt, and socially imposed shame.
It’s also normal to have conflicting emotions during the grieving process. For example, some people feel a sense of sadness and relief that they are no longer pregnant, all at the same time. These feelings can last for days, weeks, months, or even years after an abortion. Grief is different for everyone, and there is no set time frame for how one might move through it.
It won’t be surprising to many that our culture isn’t good at supporting people going through the grieving process. This is especially true when it comes to abortion. Abortion grief is often amplified by religious or cultural beliefs, relationship problems or abuse, and stigmas—all of which can isolate someone and make them feel like they have no one to talk to about their experience.
Members of the TalkDeath community expressed feeling like they could not voice their grief because it would be viewed as anti-choice or abandoning their feminist ideals. This detachment made it harder to cope. As one respondent said, “I believe all women should have abortion access, but there was no room in the broader conversation about abortions for how horrific mine was. I had to get one for medical reasons and just didn’t feel like I could #ShoutMyAbortion if it wasn’t completely an empowering one. It’s like if you say anything about it, people automatically jump to conclusions about what you’re trying to say. It was really, really lonely.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a decision can be right and still be sad. Grief is a part of many significant transitions in our lives, but its presence does not reflect negatively on someone’s healthcare choices or plans for their life, career, and relationships. If your experience did not fall within the terribly few cultural narratives we have about abortion, that doesn’t mean it is wrong or invalid. You made whatever choice was best for you, and that is what matters.
Coping with Abortion Grief
While grief can feel never-ending when you’re in its throes, there are ways of coping and healing from this painful and isolating experience. Rather than push your emotions away, it is important to find ways to express and honor them. Here are some potential strategies to do so:
- Talking to someone you can trust: Sharing your experience with others can be so essential in processing your grief, as well as unexpectedly cathartic. Find a friend or loved one who is willing to truly listen with compassion and without judgment. If you feel you don’t have anyone like this currently in your life, consider calling a trusted reproductive crisis hotline, such as AllOptions. You can also start a diary or journal where you can document whatever you’re feeling in a safe and private space.
- Finding community: Reading other’s experiences of abortion can be incredibly reassuring, make you feel less alone, and help you clarify your own feelings. Books, blogs, articles, and podcasts like The Abortion Diary or My Abortion, My Life can be a great place to start. (However, please be aware—there are many anti-choice websites designed to make you feel bad about yourself and your decision, so be careful!) Abortion doulas can also be a wonderful support for finding such resources or community in your local area.
- Letting go of blame: For many people, becoming pregnant when they didn’t want to have a child can be the most challenging part about undergoing an abortion. However, it’s important to remember that around half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Recognizing how common unintended pregnancies are can help you to let go of the shame and self-blame you may be experiencing. You are not an awful person for making a “mistake.” In reality, you are strong and brave for making a decision that was right for you.
- Honoring your experience: Reproductive choices are so often hidden, which is so different from other forms of loss—no one is sending sympathy cards and casseroles. Therefore, it can be healing to find your own way to acknowledge and memorialize your abortion experience and grief. This could include creating a ritual like planting a tree or releasing a symbolic object, or writing a poem or letter. Whatever feels meaningful to you!