For more than 10 years, Exhale has focused on creating a social climate where each person's unique experience with abortion is supported, respected, and free from stigma.
I’ve heard this question from callers at many different points in time after an abortion, from weeks or months to many years later. This question can harbor so much pain and frustration, and part of me wishes I had a magic wand I could wave to make those painful feelings simply go away. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that some of the most profound conversations I’ve had with callers have been precisely when we sit together with those painful feelings and I just hear what they have to say.
Here are three things I’ve learned during those times, and what I now say to callers when they ask this question.
There is no “normal” timeline.
Callers often want to know what other women have experienced. In other words, what’s “normal?” The truth is that experiences are so different, it’s impossible to generalize. Sometimes, a woman has only positive feelings about her abortion. Sometimes, she feels empowered and happy in the moment, and then later she’s surprised by feelings of loss or regret that she didn’t anticipate. (Some callers have mentioned that dealing with the logistics of obtaining an abortion can leave little room for emotions, at least in the short term.) Sometimes, feelings arise on specific holidays, anniversaries, or significant dates, such as a due date. Sometimes, feelings arise in response to a seemingly small event, like seeing a diaper ad.
I’ll stop here, even though there are many more examples I could give. Partners, friends, and family members have their own stories to tell. The point I want to make is: Whatever you’re feeling right now is perfectly valid and okay. If it’s frustration with these feelings that won’t go away, that’s valid and okay, too!
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Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them go away.
This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over myself. It can be so hard to give ourselves the space and permission to really feel things like grief, shame, or regret. A common fear that callers have shared with me is: “If I start crying, I won’t be able to stop.” That fear certainly makes sense, given the intensity of emotions they're feeling. I also share with callers who bring it up that this has definitely not been the case in my experience. I’ve sat with a lot of women as they’ve allowed themselves to cry, and things tend to get “cried out” in minutes at a time, not hours or days.
It’s actually very unlikely that you will become overwhelmed or unable to function if you allow those feelings in. It may help to think about how it feels for you when you feel really “heard” by someone else. What would it be like to give that same experience of being heard to yourself?
I love talking to callers about symbolic ways to honor their experiences. In a way, this relates to the previous point, because a personalized ritual creates a predefined space for experiencing difficult feelings; a space that you can then leave. What feels like a meaningful way to bring peace and closure to an experience can vary a lot, and I enjoy brainstorming with women about what might feel meaningful to them.
It can be frustrating not to know how long difficult feelings will last, and probably even more frustrating to be told that there’s no easy answer to this question! However, one thing I know is that although the healing process may not have a definitive end, it does change and transform over time. Sometimes, what’s left for us to do when difficult feelings linger is to stop, listen to them, honor them as best as we can, and trust that this is enough.
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