Part 1: Volunteering
I volunteer for a phone support talkline. Connect & Breathe offers a nonjudgmental space for people experiencing abortion-related distress. Most callers are women who recently had abortions, perhaps within the past week or even just yesterday. With us, callers can describe their thoughts and feelings openly, without judgment. We trust our callers; we know they’ve been doing and continue to do the best that they can. We hope to help our callers experience themselves as less alone as they confront painful feelings. We seek to provide moments of authentic human compassion.
Every person is unique. And yet, clear themes emerge. Almost every caller says that abortion was the best decision that they could make given the circumstances they faced at the time. Yet many callers are surprised by how they feel, and these feelings violate their expectations, their values, and apparently, basic logic. It was for the best. Why am I distraught?
Many callers feel distressed by the quality of their close relationships. In some cases, a partner leaves; in other cases, a partner acts in less loving, supportive, or patient ways than expected. Other relationships may also show strain. Many callers realize for the first time that they can’t fully trust whether their mother, sister, or friend will accept their decision, whether the relationship will be irreparably damaged. Secrecy is safe, but in secrecy, we’re all alone.
After an abortion, many women also grasp how challenging it is to be an abortion patient in a world in which women often are dismissed as untrustworthy and insufficiently subordinate. Many object to the ways in which total strangers feel complete confidence about what would be best for their lives. Abortion patients are vilified for many reasons, and a major reason is this: they’re seen as responsible for their own distress. You brought this on yourself. And there’s more. If they didn’t have sex, then they wouldn’t be pregnant. If they’d chosen a different form of contraception, or picked a partner who didn’t stealthily remove the condom, prevented their rape, or simply just acted differently, were different, none of this would’ve happened.
Some people see abortion-related distress as divine consequence. One person of faith recently explained that he saw abortion as an act of defiance against God. For those like him, only God wields power over life, and mere humans are incapable of understanding the larger plan. For them, when women seek abortion, they usurp a holy power, one that isn’t theirs to wield.
Abortion patients who call for support mourn in different ways, for different reasons. They mourn for the future, for the unborn child who is not to be, and for the ways in which their lives may now feel forever altered, on a different course. Abortion patients who call for help also mourn for the past. They recall, with bittersweet regret, their once harmonious and pleasurable partner relationships, now gone or eroding in conflict, blame, or disconnection. They have a new appreciation for how it once had felt to exist in a simpler life. Once upon a time, the path forward appeared uncluttered and bright. They remember when making the correct decision was clear, easy, and felt good.
Part 2: Mourning
My husband died. It was a shock. We weren’t together when this was happening. I was out having coffee with a friend who had just revealed the happy news of her pregnancy. From our home, he had texted me that had called 911, and I missed the text, laughing and distracted by my friend’s news. With this unbelievable, unbearable loss, I fell into a new world of regret and confusion, of disorientation and groundlessness.
We were deeply in love for almost 20 years. He was a gentle, caring, brilliant man, a loving, supportive spouse and father. He wasn’t perfect, but he loved me perfectly. On our third date, after an awkward first kiss, he had warned me that he was at risk for early death. I didn’t believe him. Over the years, he talked openly about wanting me to life a full and happy life after he passed. I shushed him, dismissing the possibility.
Like abortion patients in distress, as a new widow, I found myself surprised by my feelings. Some of these feelings violated my expectations and apparently, basic logic. He’s gone forever, but I feel him here. I was calm when they told me the shattering news. I needed to see him and was overwhelmed with gratitude for our final moments together. Despite exhaustion and despair, in a strange way, I enjoyed the visitation hours and funeral. So much love surrounded us! I appreciated hearing others tell me what my husband meant to them. Milling around the funeral home, I was greedy to hear the stories that strangers offered me about how he touched their lives. There was so much I didn’t know.
Like abortion patients in distress, as a new widow, I felt distressed by the quality of some of my close relationships. Some family and friends weren’t as loving, supportive, or patient as I had hoped. I became acutely attuned to a vital quality in others that I had previously overlooked: the ability to tolerate and stay present with pain.
A relative told me that it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all; I should be grateful because she, unlike me, had never experienced true love. A friend noticed my hollow eyes and asked if I’d been sleeping; when I confessed that I hadn’t, she suggested that I return to the gym for regular workouts. These people were uncomfortable with my pain; they wanted to fix it. They wanted to find relief — for me, but also, for themselves.
In a world in which women are dismissed as untrustworthy and insufficiently subordinate, it’s challenging to be a widow. As an unmarried single mother, my judgment and situation were now subject to questioning. A county judge ordered an investigation – would our children’s inheritance rights would be protected under my care?
Like abortion patients in distress, widows mourn for the life they will no longer have. My husband and I won’t retire together. We won’t meet our first grandchild together. Like abortion patients who call for help, I mourn for the future and the different course that life will now take. And I mourn for the past, my lost love, his healthy sturdy arms around me, for the simple time when we loved each other and our children, when life was clear, easy, and felt good.
Part 3: Joining
The phone rings. “Hello, you’ve reached Connect & Breathe. I’m Jenny,” I say, phone pressed to my ear. In a typical call, a woman cries. Her voice is muffled; I strain to hear. She often says something about not knowing what to say. She wants to do what is right, to avoid mistakes, to deserve the compassion she seeks. In a low voice, I tell her that I’m glad she reached out. I say she can tell me as much or as little as she’d like, or we can sit silently together. After this initial first exchange, the floodgates burst. Often there’s a rushed monologue, punctuated by tears.
Peer support is a powerful healing force, benefiting those providers and receivers. In my own grief, I’ve become more patient, more receptive, more welcoming of tears, more accepting of the infinite groundlessness of loss. I’m more respectful of the importance of this specific painful moment, however fleeting it may or may not be. Unless the caller asks, I’m uninterested in exploring possible solutions or suggesting formal counseling. Now I hear how guilt and self-blame allow a caller to feel connected to her sense of self as moral, good, and worthy of relief. Now I feel how heavy the grief is to bear, alone, and often in secret. I advance towards the pain, arms outstretched, to share the load.
Like some callers, I move through the world, meeting new people who have no idea that my heart has shattered open. I chat with a cashier about the weather, ask a mechanic about the engine. All the while, on the inside, there is the ache of emptiness, the phantom pain of loss.
As someone actively grieving, it’s both a privilege and a relief to focus wholly on someone else’s hurt. I welcome the opportunity to bear witness. I try to provide a space where a caller can, to the degree that she wishes, uncover her hidden wound. I receive and embrace the pain: the despair, the guilt, the lack of self-recognition, the confusion, the injustice. These painful feelings are familiar. They are true.
The world can be an unbearable place. To get through it, all we have is each other.