The trauma of abortion: from denial to healing, part 1 of 2

The seven messages

Have you ever over-packed for a trip and your suitcase was so heavy that you weren’t sure how you were going to manage it? I’ve done that more than once. As I lugged and lurched the massive weight from here to there, up some stairs, around corners, from this station to that station, I thought repeatedly—What was I thinking? I didn’t have the foggiest clue how far I’d have to lug this heavy, bulky monstrosity. What a mess. Arms, shoulders, hands and back aching. Bumping into things. Sweating. Feeling like a total idiot. Frustration and regret galore.

Emotional baggage can be the same—heavy, difficult to maneuver, exhausting….

In part 4 of Time for Grieving, we dug into the pop-culture myth that says—once you’ve arrived in The State of Grief, you’ll never leave. There’s an opposite issue that’s equally damaging: The belief that you shouldn’t grieve because it’s messy and might make someone else uncomfortable. Take a deep breath and ignore it is how that theory goes.

Page 41 in the book Through a Season of Grief addresses this issue very well in the devotion entitled “Society’s Superficial Response to Grief.” After I read the prayer at the end of that devotion, I said out loud, “Amen to that.”

We call this coping mechanism denial. It’s also the result of our society’s conditioning—persistent propaganda and training. Keep up appearances. Smile. Pretend that everything’s just fine.

During my interview with my friend Summer, whose husband had died, she shared the big impediments to feeling and grieving:
♦ Keeping grief bottled up
♦ Not talking about it with others
♦ Believing that showing emotion is weakness
♦ Fear of losing control (i.e., crying and not stopping)

Types of denial
I know a lot about denial; so does my husband Brandon.

Denial can either be:
1. a case of minimizing the significance of what happened;
2. a general fear of talking about feelings, crying and/or grieving;
3. not knowing how to grieve; or
4. a case of complete denial that anything bad happened at all.

The lies
There are also different causes of denial. They all involve lies—lies told by someone else, lies told by ourselves, and sometimes both.

What kinds of lies would lead to (1) a case of minimizing the significance of what happened?
It’s not that big of a deal.
People experience this kind of thing every day.
So-and-so wasn’t that upset when it happened to her/him.
So-and-so got over it quickly, so I should too.
It’s just part of the natural life cycle.
It was just meant to be.
I’m doing just fine.

What kinds of lies would lead to (2) a general fear of talking about feelings, crying and/or grieving?
♦ Big boys/girls don’t cry.
♦ You aren’t hurt. Dry up those tears!
(Or the country version Brandon grew up with: Get up! You ain’t hurt.)
♦ Crying is a weakness.
♦ Use your head (i.e., not your heart).
♦ Just the facts (i.e., skip the feelings).
♦ Nobody likes seeing somebody else crying.
♦ I’m too busy/important. I don’t have time to get all emotional.

What kinds of lies or experiences would lead to (3) not knowing how to grieve?
♦ All of the above (both lists).
♦ Parents who never talked about feelings or showed grief.
♦ Significant traumas, resulting in shutting down emotionally.

What kinds of lies would lead to (4) a case of complete denial that anything bad happened at all?
♦ Problem? What problem.
♦ Nothing happened.
♦ It’s totally normal.
♦ Everybody’s doing it.
♦ It didn’t matter.
♦ It’s my fault (not the abuser’s fault).
♦ I’m glad it happened.

Shock vs. denial
In an earlier post, Time for Grieving, part 2, we discussed the Five Stages of Grief presented by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We’re reframing these from stages to characteristics, and I’ve reworded some of them. I use the word sadness instead of depression (since depression is a clinical diagnosis with specific characteristics); and in my book, our destination is peace instead of acceptance. Some people call the first characteristic shock. In other words, denial can be the natural time of grieving that goes like this: “Surely that didn’t just happen.” (That, to me, is a person experiencing shock.)

Denial can also be a short- or long-term coping mechanism. In this series, when I use the word denial, I’m referring to the coping mechanism.

You might be wondering, Can someone be in denial for decades about a loss that needs to be grieved? Yes. Yes, indeed.

Decades of denial ~ from 1989 to 2016
I know how denial sounds and feels.

Propaganda and lies
We talked a lot about propaganda and lies in the first series about sociopaths. Does the propaganda below sound familiar?

Society’s propaganda/lies:
♦ It’s just a lump of flesh.
♦ It isn’t a baby.
♦ Your life will be better/easier this way.
♦ This is the best choice for you right now.
♦ You’d be irresponsible not to take care of this problem.
♦ This is your most responsible, cost-effective option.
♦ It’s legal, so it must be okay.

The big lie: Your baby isn’t a baby.

His* propaganda/lies:
♦ This is what we’re doing.
♦ We’re doing the right thing.
♦ You should be thankful that I’m paying for it.
♦ You don’t have a choice.
♦ I’m unwilling to be a parent.
♦ Since we didn’t plan it, you have to make it go away.
♦ It’s not a big deal; my first wife had two.

The big lie: It doesn’t matter; it won’t affect you.

(*My first husband, not Brandon.)

My propaganda/lies:
♦ I’m glad I did it.
♦ Since there’s no child, I don’t have to maintain contact with him.
♦ My life is easier this way.
♦ I don’t regret it.
♦ It doesn’t affect me.
♦ No one will ever know.
♦ It wasn’t wrong.

The big lie: I’ll forget about it; it’ll go away.

So many lies. So. Many. Lies.

Three truths
1. I had an abortion and killed my baby.
2. He did matter.
3. I couldn’t forget about him.

Walls crumbling down
I’m not sure exactly when the walls of my denial started to crumble. Maybe it was when I started asking God to forgive me. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again…. I knew in my head that he forgave me the first time I asked, but I didn’t feel forgiven. That’s because I couldn’t forgive myself.

Enslaved by a secret
Even though I knew that one out of three adult women in the United States has had an abortion, I was absolutely positive that no one I knew was in that one-out-of-three group. Surely not…

…until one day two years ago when Summer told me and another lady from church her story. We were sitting at a coffee shop like we did every week. Right after she told us that she’d had an abortion, I blurted out “Me too.” And then our other friend said, “Me too.” Three out of three women sitting together. Three women out for coffee (and I don’t drink coffee). Three women who go to church together. Three out of three. Amazing. I thought that was impossible. Some people would call it Providence. And they’d be right.

The weight of the secret
The Holy Spirit had flooded my mind with Type 2 Intrusive Thoughts, but I was afraid. I knew I needed to tell my friend Summer, but I couldn’t summon the courage until after she shared first. What an enormous weight was lifted off of me that day. I can’t begin to describe it.

The weight of the secret had impacted me in many ways. I avoided some groups of women because I felt inferior and ashamed. I was just sure that they wouldn’t want to be around me if they knew the truth. I thought about him, especially at the anniversary of the time when I had the abortion—the week of Thanksgiving. I calculated how old he would be. I wondered about how my life would’ve been different. I thought about all the things I missed. I felt deserving of punishment, so I allowed things I shouldn’t have allowed….

Restrained vs. released
I held it in. I kept it hidden. The secret that couldn’t be told. And it restrained me. It corroded me. It confronted me…

…until that day when Summer told her story and I finally spoke the words. I finally admitted what I had done. Then I started to feel released. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one. Someone that I knew and trusted would understand how I felt. Remarkable.

And Summer was someone I admired, someone I loved, someone I trusted. How could this be?

Three gifts: the book, the sermon and the invitation
She gave me a book to read, written by a lady who’d had an abortion—Her Choice to Heal by Sydna Massé. I read the book very gradually. It helped me a little.

While I was still working my way slowly through the book, our pastor preached a powerhouse sermon on the subject—the first sermon I’d ever heard on abortion—and I was moved deeply. (Click here and scroll down to the Nehemiah sermon series. Click on the graphic for Nehemiah and scroll down to the August 30, 2015 sermon, Abortion: Seeing and Weeping.) I confessed my sin—my abortion—to two close friends who were sitting on either side of me that Sunday morning in church. They embraced me and still loved me. Wow.

The third gift: “…for you”
A couple months later, I received an email at work about an abortion recovery retreat coming up in February. I was reading the information and—as part of my job—I was advertising it to other women who needed it. And every time I saw it or thought about it, the still, small voice spoke in my heart: “This is for you.” “This is for you.” “This is for you.” And I knew I needed to be there.

So I called the phone number. I was so nervous. How could I even talk about this? I cried some while I was on the phone with the lady who returned my call. She was really nice. I told her I couldn’t forgive myself. I signed up for the retreat. I knew I had to be there.

The retreat
I went to the abortion recovery retreat. I gave it my all. I listened. I reflected. I read. I wrote. I felt—deeply. I cried. I drank it all in. And I told my story.

I forgave myself and I celebrated my son.

I laid it down—the loss, the secret, the shame. I laid it down. Praise God in heaven. I laid it down.

At home
After I got home, I read some of the materials I’d received and written during that life-changing weekend retreat. As the first week or two after the retreat went by, I looked at my notebook less and less frequently, and soon I was done reading and reflecting on what I’d experienced there. I laid my notebook down.

The follow-up support group
That fall, an 8-week follow-up group was available. I felt in my heart that I needed to be there, so I signed up. I went. It was good. It was really good. I felt stronger. I felt more connected with different women who’d had one or more abortions.

Our group got together a couple times after the group’s official ending in December. The second time we got together, our retreat coordinator mentioned that she’d been to some training in January, given by the best speaker/expert on Traumatic Grief that she’d ever heard. I asked for the speaker’s name and contact information. The expert was Liz Taylor, the counselor I’d be interviewing months later for this blog series. I nodded my head. Our lives intersected at just the right time. I understood….

That was the last time we saw each other.

It was time. I laid it down.

Denial vs. healing
Let’s compare The Seven Messages of Denial with The Seven Messages of Healing. They are direct opposites.

The Seven Messages of Denial

Denial says:
1. Don’t think about it.
2. Never tell anyone.
3. Don’t feel it.
4. If you start crying, you’ll never stop.
5. Just ignore it and it’ll go away.
6. If you tell them, they won’t love you.
7. Hold on to the secret.

The big lie: Keeping the secret protects you and keeps you safe from rejection and pain.

The Seven Messages of Healing

Healing says:
1. You thought about it.
2. You talked about it.
3. You felt it.
4. You cried (and you stopped crying).
5. You looked it in the eye and said good-bye.
6. You are loved.
7. You laid it down.

The big truth: Doing the work of grieving heals you and frees you from the pain of loss and trauma.

I said to myself for many, many years that I’d never admit that I had an abortion. I told God that I’d never write about that. I said No. Emphatically.

Then he gently held my hand and gave me gifts and showered me with compassion and loved me and healed me.

And. I. Laid. It. Down.

It feels so, so good to lay it down.

Your turn
Peaceful Readers, have you been carrying something heavy? Are you carrying a loss, a trauma? You can lay it down.

Take the time. Pray. Do the work of grieving. Remember what happened. Talk about it. Feel the feelings. Cry the tears.

You can lay it down.

I look forward to hearing from you. How is God working in your life to help you heal? What fears are you facing? Leave me a comment below or send me an email at You’re not alone.

Coming next: The next post is a poem that I wrote to someone very special.

Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.

Truth from The Word: Drink in this verse and the healing steps it teaches us.

James 5:16

Song for Healing: When I first heard this song, I knew it would be the song for this post. Amazing.

“One Step Away” by Casting Crowns

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