The Vicarious Trauma of Pro-Life Advocates on the Front Lines

The Vicarious Trauma of Pro-Life Advocates on the Front Lines

Four Children rescued from smoky fire

While a single traumatic event may trigger debilitating symptoms, the Trauma Center of the Justice Resource Institute indicates that the longer the exposure to such events, the higher likelihood responders will suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress. 

We know that without education and supportive services they can struggle to reach out for help.  Women and men can experience a sense of shame when they feel overwhelmed by the pain and loss that are part of their vocations.  They may fear the judgment and condemnation of their colleagues if they share their vulnerability and struggles.   Thankfully, this is beginning to change.

There is another Population of First Responders with a special vocation to protect innocent children at risk for a violent death, and advocate for the protection of their young lives.    Sadly, this group of women and men usually not hailed as heroes, and are often marginalized, cursed, and ridiculed.  They are ignored or maligned by the media, society and sadly sometimes even by their own faith communities. 

Despite the ongoing contentious debate in our society about abortion, pro-life advocates are quite clear about the foundation of their prolife mission; the male or female baby in a mother’s womb is a unique person with an inherent right to life.

There is no distinction for the pro-life advocate between a 12-week-old child dying behind the walls of an abortion business and a 3-year-old child in danger of dying in a house fire.  They would see both lives as worthy of a communities care and protection.

With this in mind, consider the experiences of pro-life advocates on the front lines:

Donna Gardner is a therapist and ministry coordinator with Catholic Charities, Office of Respect Life, Diocese of Palm Beach, FL. She offers training and counseling to their Pregnancy Care Center staff. Donna shared about the burden of the pregnancy care counselors that work with abortion minded clients:

  • “I worked with one counselor who developed an ongoing relationship with a pregnant mother.  They were working together to develop the resources and support so she could parent the child.  The counselor naturally developed a close working relationship with this mother and child.  The mother abruptly stopped coming to appointments.  She later learned the mother aborted her 5 month old girl or boy.  She was emotionally devastated by this loss.” [1]
  • June Matson has been the director of Pregnancy Resource Connection in Granby Colorado for the past 25 years.   Their center has an ultrasound machine. June shared that recently one of her client advisors was able to be present for the first time to witness an ultrasound with a couple coming to their center for support and resources for their baby. Seeing the child and hearing the heartbeat left the volunteer feeling blessed and elated to be part of such a wonderful ministry that provides life-affirming choices for parents.  Shortly after that peak experience, this same client advisor was assisting another client who chose to abort. She was devastated. June shared that the power of that peak ministry experience in the ultrasound room led to a heightened sensitivity of the volunteer when confronted soon after with the tragic reality that not all choose life for their unborn children. 
  • June shared another important observation that spoke to the power of the ultrasound experience for a Pregnancy Resource Center. When a client comes in for an ultrasound, all the volunteers present at that time are spiritually and emotionally connected to the clients in the procedure room. Even those women that are folding baby clothes and not in the front line ministry work with clients, are praying intensely for the mother and baby as they go about their tasks.  While they rejoice in their many opportunities to help these parents choose life, when a client later visits the Planned Parenthood next door for a referral to Denver for an abortion, it naturally impacts all those staff and volunteers who provide the Pregnancy Resource Connection services.
  • A Front Line Pro-Life Advocate praying in front of an abortion business approaches a woman with love.   She tries to engage her in a life affirming decision for her unborn baby. The mother goes into the abortion center and comes out with an empty womb. The pro-lifer who has encountered this mother and child is naturally intimately connected to and wounded by this abortion loss.   
  • Women and men pray before abortion centers in all kinds of weather interceding for the conversion of the employees, for the parents and their babies. At times they are cursed at, spit upon, mocked and abused by pro-abortion activists and sometimes an angry parent, grandparent or friend of the pregnant mother.

Institutional Spiritual Neglect

Prolife advocates may suffer from the Institutional Spiritual Neglect of their religious leaders and churches.   They stand for years on the front lines of the abortion battles, praying, and counseling, educating, and legislating to try and save unborn lives and protect their parents from abortion complications.  Their spiritual leaders may fail to support and affirm their witness. They sit every Sunday in their church awaiting a word of encouragement and an acknowledgment of their efforts, and usually hear silence.

They rarely see a minister, priest or Bishop stand alongside of them to pray at the abortion center, advocate for the children and grieve with them. (Thankfully this is not always the case, as there are ministers, clergy and bishops who do stand with pro-lifers, but this remains a very small number.)  These spiritual children can feel ostracized, marginalized and unappreciated by their spiritual fathers. 

Disenfranchised Grief

Donna Gardner shares an experience that can help us better understand the disenfranchised grief of pro-life advocates[2]:

“I recently spoke with an older group of pro-life veterans who spent years in prolife ministry and advocacy.  I asked them to close their eyes and bring to mind one particular situation; think of that one baby lost to abortion that especially touched you deeply.  They all began to tear up and express the grief that has been hidden in their hearts for many years.”

As previously noted, the effects of trauma can be cumulative.  After repeated exposure to situations where a pro-life advocate is unable to save an unborn child, while continuing to face the hostility or indifference of the wider community, they can reach a tipping point.   The repressed grief and pain emerge in symptoms that can impact life and relationships.  Keep in mind a single event where one is unable to prevent a tragic death can also lead to some of these feelings and symptoms:

– Anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, irritability and anger.

– Withdrawing and isolating from others.

– Some may experience a sense of confusion, distance and darkness in their spiritual life and relationship with God.

– Nightmares, flashbacks, or other intrusive thoughts and memories of the event.

– Using substances to avoid feelings, feeling numb, spacing out, or feeling as if things are unreal.[3]

Hope and Healing – The Value of Abortion Recovery Programs for Pro-Life Advocates

The good news for pro-life advocates is that we already have in place some very effective programs to respond to this suffering.  Some pregnancy centers and pro- life groups already provide the support and counseling to care for their volunteers and employees.

But there is another very effective resource that can benefit pro-life advocates.  These programs were developed over a number of years to treat the symptoms of trauma and complicated mourning suffered by women and men after participating in the death of their unborn children.  Rachel’s Vineyard and other abortion recovery programs such as Save-One and Forgiven and Set Free utilize special exercises and scripture mediations to create a safe and effective experience of emotional and spiritual healing.

Donna Gardner had the opportunity to offer training to all the Palm Beach Diocese Pregnancy Care Staff.  She shared the challenges of ministry to those facing unplanned pregnancy and abortion minded clients and provided education on trauma symptoms and recovery.  Donna also shared about her leadership in the Rachel’s Vineyard abortion healing weekends in the diocese.  As a result of this outreach, two pregnancy care counselors ask to attend a Rachel’s Vineyard Weekend.

Donna shared that the two pregnancy care staff members who attended their retreat had a very positive and blessed experience.  The other retreat participants, who personally suffered abortion loss, were welcoming of the pregnancy counselors.  One of the participants was an ultra sound technician.  She carried a deep burden of grief for those children who die in abortion procedures and their parents.  Donna shared that the ultra sound tech was renewed and restored by her Rachel’s Vineyard weekend.  The other participant is a counselor with Spanish speaking clients and also had a very positive healing experience on the retreat.

The Value of Grief Work – The Renewal and Empowerment of the Pro Life Vocation

There is room now in the heart and soul for the Lord to touch you deeply with His love and mercy.  In that vulnerable grieving state, becoming spiritually like little children as Jesus taught, you intimately experience your heavenly Father’s tender love for you as his precious son or daughter.

For those pro-life advocates and the staff of Pregnancy Resource Centers who experience symptoms of vicarious trauma from their ministry, abortion recovery programs will bring significant support and relief for their suffering.  But there is a broader vision of the value of this type of grief work for the pro-life movement.  If we can create that that sacred time and space to acknowledge abortion related grief and express that pain, the fruits of that journey can renew and empower the pro-life movement.

There is a healthy and beneficial vulnerability that naturally occurs in Rachel’s Vineyard and other recovery programs.  These programs have the experienced staff and volunteers that create the atmosphere and activities, grounded in the Word of God, to facilitate the grieving process for abortion loss.  As you progress through the program and participate in the activities, the heart and soul open up to grace.  God’s grace is able to flow freely and can begin to cleanse the heart of any anger, bitterness, despair, anxiety, and depression that grew from not having the opportunity to acknowledge and share that pain with others.

An important bonus blessing for those pro-life advocates that make this journey of grief; they emerge with an even deeper love for the unborn, their parents and all touched by abortion loss.  It renews their pro-life vocation and empowers them with new vigor and commitment grounded in the love and mercy of God.  They discover a new spiritual energy and gifts for their vocations.

Next Steps

Post-abortion ministries, Pregnancy Resource Centers, and prolife groups may want to consider offering these healing opportunities with special retreats or groups just for pro-life advocates.

It can be difficult to get people to commit to an entire weekend or an ongoing group program; perhaps a day of spiritual retreat would be a good first step:

  •  Ask a counselor, minister or clergy person to lead a day of prayer and healing.
  • (With permission of the authors) adapt some helpful exercises and activities from post-abortion recovery programs.
    This will create an opportunity for pro-life advocates to share their grief and entrust these children that have touched their hearts to the Lord.

Another very effective option to consider:

Journaling:  Many find journaling a helpful first-step in processing some difficult memories and feelings:

  • Take some quiet time in prayer, perhaps in an adoration or community chapel.  Ask the Holy Spirit to bring to light a particular situation or ministry event that is weighing on your heart and soul.
  • Write down your memories and feelings about that event.  In your journal or in silent prayer, invite the Lord into that area of grief and loss.  Write out a prayer from your heart for that baby and the child’s parents and family.  This may involve a number of ministry situations.
  • Consider sharing what you wrote with a trusted ministry friend or colleague.   Reading a journal entry out loud can have a surprisingly powerful effect.  If you have a good relationship with your priest or minister request a meeting to share your journal entry and ask them pray to with you.

If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, self-medicating with alcohol or other self-destructive behaviors related to traumatic loss, ask your church or pro-life ministry director for a referral to a counselor.  It is important that the counselor respect and support your pro-life vocation.  A caring professional can help you work through your pain and find healing.

[1] Thankfully she reached out to Donna for help and she was able to work through her losses and find emotional and spiritual healing.

[2] Disenfranchised grief is a term describing grief that is not acknowledged by society.

[3] Regan, Laura. When Helping Hurts: Trauma’s Effects on First Responders. Good Therapy.Org, February 12th 2015.

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