In her book to be released in 2002, my friend Dr. Theresa Burke writes,
"There is no social norm for dealing with an abortion. There are no Hallmark cards for friends who have had an abortion, declaring either sympathy or congratulations. We don't send flowers. We don't have any ceremonies, either joyous or mournful. We have no social customs or rules of etiquette governing acknowledgment of an abortion. Instead, we all try to ignore it."
The book, "Forbidden Grief," with which Dr. David Reardon also collaborated, demonstrates that grief after abortion is neither expected nor permitted in our society. Drawing from their vast experience of post-abortion counseling, the authors illustrate some of the ways that this "disenfranchised grief" eats away at the personality, and results in harmful and bizarre behavior.
As a graduate student, Theresa Burke led a weekly support group for women with eating disorders. The meeting exploded out of control one night when, unexpectedly, the topic of abortion arose. Six of the eight participants had had abortions. This led Theresa to begin exploring the connections. One woman explained, "I am never hungry when I binge…I eat because I am full. Full of anger, hurt, sadness, and loneliness. I throw up because that is the way I empty myself of those feelings."
Every thought and emotion we have is connected to other thoughts, emotions, and memories. Connections to the negative memories associated with abortion are often overlooked, even by professional therapists.
Forbidden Grief reveals many of the connections. For example, those who undergo a trauma often re-enact that trauma, in a subconscious effort to articulate, understand, and master it. One client became obsessed with pregnancy after her abortion. She explains, "I used to go to the maternity section in department stores…I usually had a towel stuffed in my pantyhose to make it look like I was pregnant…but as soon as I'd get in my car I would cry my head off…I'd rip the towel out of my belly to dry my tears. I'd tell myself, you're not pregnant…this is just a stupid towel."
Another rode horseback regularly without padded pants, until she bled profusely, hence re-enacting the abortion.
One way or another, we ritualize our grief.
We also sometimes try to trivialize it when we know it's too much to bear. Dr. Burke describes a dorm party in which the students, many post-abortive, played "Baby Soccer." The broken heads of dolls were kicked around the room gleefully, their eyes gouged out with darts, their cheeks burned with cigarette butts.
Other post-abortive individuals increase their risk-taking behavior, hoping they will get caught or hurt. After all, they know they are guilty, and may seek an experience to confirm that.
When society trivializes abortion, people suffering from it will, cry out by their actions, "I'm not OK! I'm in tremendous pain! Can anyone help me?" We need to tell them we know that pain, and that it makes sense to grieve. Only then can healing begin.