[The Following is an excerpt from Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion. Theresa Burke, Ph.D. with David Reardon.]
“I was hoping you could help my daughter. She needs counseling. Somebody objective. God certainly knows I’m not.” Mr. Davis’s voice trailed off as if in regretful thought.
“What’s the problem?” I asked, shifting the telephone receiver to my shoulder so I could jot down a few notes.
“Well,” he stammered, “my daughter, Gina, is dating this guy. He’s verbally and physically abusive. He is ruining her life.” Mr. Davis sounded desperate. In his voice I could detect anger and hurt but worst of all helplessness. “I can’t just sit back and watch my daughter ruin her life. This guy already has another kid he can’t support. I don’t know what she sees in him. My Gina, she’s a great girl.”
His tone changed to a hushed whisper. “I love her so much but I’m losing her.” He was silent for a moment, then his voice cracked, “Please, can you do something? Can you help her see what a creep he is? Gina won’t listen to me anymore.”
I informed Mr. Davis that I couldn’t break them up but I could help Gina examine her relationship and sort out her feelings about this man. Then I asked Mr. Davis if anything else had happened between Gina and her boyfriend.
The question itself was a threat. Mr. Davis hesitated. Finally he answered, “Well, there is something but it should really come from her. I think she should be the one to tell you. After all, it’s her life and I don’t want her to think I was talking behind her back.”
“Did your daughter have an abortion?” I asked in a matter of fact tone. The word was said. Abortion. There was silence, as is almost always the case. I had a telephone listing for Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats (For Post Abortion Healing), yet still people would often struggle to explain why they were calling.
I met his daughter that night. Gina was 19, with long blond hair and sad blue eyes. “My dad made me have it,” she explained. “He told me I could not live with them if I didn’t. He knew it might make me hate him but he was willing to take that risk. I’d get over it, he said. I was not raised to believe in abortion. In high school I even wrote a paper on it.” Her eyes welled with tears, shining like brilliant sapphires.
For three years Gina had never told anyone about the abortion; within a few moments, the memory surfaced like a tidal wave of grief. The surges of the experience came crashing against the fortress of my therapeutic composure as I attempted to steady her for the next gush of emotion.
Gina’s story came out in between distressing sobs and gasps for air. “I came home from college on a Friday to tell them about the pregnancy and what we were planning to do…. My dad hit the roof. He wanted to know what he ever did to deserve this. Dad took my boyfriend into the kitchen to have a man-to-man talk. They would not let me in. Dad tried to pressure him to convince me that abortion was the best thing.”
With much difficulty, she continued. “Two days later I was up on a table, my feet in stirrups…. I cried the whole way there…. My mom took me…. I kept telling her I did not want this…. Please no! Don’t make me do this; don’t make me do this…. I said it the whole way there…. No one listened. When a counselor asked me if I was sure, I shrugged my shoulders…. I could hardly speak. They did it…. They killed my baby.”
Overcome with heartache, Gina began to moan. Bent over holding her womb, she couldn’t believe she had actually had an abortion. After a long tearful pause, Gina continued, “Just as quickly as it had happened everyone seemed to forget about it. My parents never talked about it. They were furious when they found out that I was still seeing Joe. They never let up on their negative comments about him. Things were not so good between Joe and me either. We were always fighting. I was so depressed and did not know how to handle my feelings. I was too ashamed to talk about the abortion with my friends, and my parents made me promise not to tell anyone.”
As her story unraveled, I saw many signals of complicated mourning. Anger and hurt filled Gina’s heart. There was grief too, tremendous grief over a dead baby who would never be there to offer joy and hope. Anything related to babies made her cry: baby showers, diaper commercials, even children. Everything triggered relentless heartache. There was a wound in her soul that simply would not stop bleeding.
Though Gina’s family had been nominally Christian, religious faith did not hinder their desire for an abortion. Her parents had believed that by insisting on abortion they would save her from a life of poverty and tribulation with a man they did not believe could love or support their precious daughter. Joe already had a child whom he was not supporting. They feared for her future with such a man.
Now the future was here. Her self-esteem crumbled, depression was a constant companion, and her parents watched sadly as a negative transformation robbed them of the daughter they knew.
Gina needed permission to grieve. Her parents had deprived her of the genuine compassion and acceptance she needed from them. They had not accepted the pregnancy earlier; later they could not accept her grief. She felt utterly rejected by them.
Gina joined our support group and also came for individual therapy. Once in treatment for post-abortion trauma, she became able to express some of her feelings. She was enraged at her parents for not being able to accept her pregnancy. They just wanted to get rid of the problem. She also felt angry at Joe for not protecting her and the baby. Since it was her own parents who wanted the abortion, Joe put the blame back on Gina.
Gina had been in deep psychic pain and felt rejected. Caught between loyalties toward her parents, Joe, and her unborn child Gina was immobilized and unable to process her own feelings about the event. In a developmental sense she was stuck. She had not been given permission to grow up, have a baby, and become a mother. Her desire for independence and adulthood had been frustrated by her unsuccessful attempt to break the emotional reliance on her parents whom she loved and had always been so vital in her life. When she terminated the pregnancy, it was not only her pregnancy that was aborted; her embryonic womanhood had been aborted too.
The result of the abortion was that she had become emotionally immobilized and uncertain. The loss of her child was an unprecedented assault on her sense of identity. Because she could not carry out the role of a protective mother, she felt an extraordinary sense of failure, and a deep sense of being violated. In a state of severe depression, Gina was incapable of making decisions, powerless to assert herself, and unable to love.
Despite his abusive behavior, Gina clung to her boyfriend Joe. His mistreatment of her confirmed her low self-esteem and sense of powerlessness. Moreover, she knew her parents hated him. By forcing her parents to accept Joe, she was unconsciously lashing back punishing them by forcing her parents to accept him — echoing the way they had forced her to accept an unwanted abortion. This dynamic gave her a sense of control. Gina was trapped in a vicious cycle by which she was punishing both herself and her father.
Perhaps most important of all, Joe signified her connection to their aborted baby. Gina feared that giving him up would destroy the only bond remaining to the child she still needed to grieve. If she gave up Joe she would have to give up the hope of recreating the baby for whom she still needed to grieve.
Gina was trapped in a vicious cycle by which she was punishing both herself and her father.
Once Gina was in treatment for post-abortion trauma, she was able to express these feelings. It was important for both her sake and her family, however, that her parents should also enter into the therapy process with her. She needed them to validate her loss and accept their responsibility for contributing to her emotional devastation. Without this recognition deterioration otherwise their relationship could never be fully healed.
In entering into this family counseling situation, I knew each parent would attempt to justify and defend their actions as they struggled with their daughter’s experience. This resistance or inability to confront and admit emotional or spiritual pain is called denial. In this phase of treatment, denial is a powerful temptation.
Gina’s mom came first. She listened to her daughter and expressed sorrow. I watched a pained expression on the woman’s face that persisted along with the inevitable but…
I know you are hurting BUT we thought we were doing the best thing. I realize this is hard BUT you must get on with your life. You wanted the baby BUT how would you ever pay for it? BUT how would you finish school. BUT, BUT, BUT…
The list goes on and on like dirty laundry, never ending, never finished. Each exception robbed Gina of the gift of fully acknowledging her loss. Her parents could not accept the pregnancy; now they couldn’t accept her grief. She felt utterly rejected.
Father Knows Best?
Gina’s father had no idea what she had sacrificed in order to please him. It was important for her to tell him, so Mr. Davis was invited for a session. The night before our meeting, he called me.
“My stomach has been upset all week since I heard about this meeting,” he said. “I want to do what is best for Gina.” Then his tone became more formal and forceful: “I just want you to know that this is NOT a moral issue to me. Gina had to have that abortion! I still think we made the right decision. If I had it to do again, I would choose the same thing. I know this is not what she wants to hear. Should I lie about it to make her feel better? Is that what I should do? Tell her I made a mistake? I cannot do that!”
With renewed determination, I explained, “Mr. Davis, I know you love your daughter very much. I know that she loves you or she never would have consented to have an abortion. The fact remains that your daughter lost something. What she lost was a child. Her baby; your grandchild. Gina thinks about it every day. She cries about it every night. The event is far from over for her. You need to hear how the abortion has affected her.”
Mr. Davis did not respond. With conviction, I continued, “When someone dies, the worst thing another can say is “it was for the best, it’s better this way.” This does nothing to comfort and console; it only makes the person angry because you are not appreciating their loss or grief. Worse for Gina is that you do not recognize the life that she is missing. Gina misses her baby, a child you have not been able to acknowledge.”
Eventually, Mr. Davis agreed that he would try to listen and that maybe he had something to learn. I really couldn’t hope for more than that.
“Men are not prone to emotional mushiness,” he reminded me. He honestly wished he could feel sorrow and compassion over the baby, but he could not. Nevertheless, he would listen if it would help his daughter.
Listening and Taking Responsibility
When Mr. Davis came in the next morning, he opened with a surprising statement. “I had no right to make that choice,” he said. After wrestling with various points in our conversation all night, he admitted that for the first time he realized that abortion was not Gina’s choice.
The session began and it was very intense. Gina expressed her anger, hurt and feelings of rejection. She also shared her grief about the aborted baby.
Mr. Davis began to face some things for the first time. He was finally able to consider the baby and to separate Joe from the pregnancy. Abortion was a way to scrape out any symptom of his daughter’s sexual activity and heroically free her from the consequences of her own actions. He began to realize that his daughter was a woman now, one he should not have tried to control. He needed to trust Gina to be capable of making her own decisions without the threat of abandonment.
As these interpretations became clear to Mr. Davis, denial could no longer sustain its powerful grip. Suddenly grief came upon Mr. Davis. He stared in disbelief, as if a light had abruptly cast shocking rays into a blackened room.
His voice broke with anguish. “Oh my baby, my sweet baby, my Gina,” he cried. “I am so sorry. I was so wrong.” He pressed his face against her cheek and the tears finally came. His tears mingled with Gina’s as they both wept. Gina put her arms around him. They embraced tightly as her father gently stroked her long hair. All the anger, the bitterness, the pent-up emotions, the grief, gave way. They sobbed in each other’s arms. He begged for her forgiveness. Between tears and tissues, he told Gina she would have been an incredible mother. In one beautiful moment, her motherhood had been validated and Gina wept with relief.
In a subsequent joint session with her parents, Gina expressed her anger, hurt and feelings of rejection and shared her grief about the aborted baby. Gina also took personal responsibility for having allowed the abortion to occur and wanted her parents to do the same. This time, her parents listened without defending or rationalizing what had happened.
Therapy helped Gina’s parents to understand the grave mistake that they had made in forcing Gina to choose between them and her baby. I encouraged them not to make her choose again between them and Joe. In bitterness and grief, Gina might permit another type of abortion: a termination of her role as their daughter.
By acknowledging Gina’s grief, and sharing it with her, Mr. and Mrs. Davis restored their relationship with their daughter. Gina’s loving and happy personality was eventually able to bloom once more. She could continue forward, was once again able to renew in her journey toward becoming a confident and capable adult. With the support of therapeutic intervention she found that she was able to identify her own needs — like the desire to break up with Joe, and to attain her own goals.