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Unspoken Grief: Pastoral Care around Abortion

Tuesday, 4 October 2011  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

Rachel mourns her children. She refuses to be consoled because her children are no more. The Lord says: Cease your cries of mourning. Wipe the tears from your eyes. The sorrow you have shown shall have its reward. There is hope for your future. (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

Rachel's Vineyard Retreat Ministries Australia is a confidential healing ministry for the many people, both men and women, who have been touched by an abortion experience. The purpose of Rachel's Vineyard Retreat Ministry is post-abortion reconciliation and healing for the "other victims" of abortion.

Anne Neville, Facilitator of Rachel's Vineyard Ministries Retreats (Interdenominational), Melbourne, spoke at a seminar for ministers and pastoral workers organised by ETHOS and the St. Hilary’s Training & Discipleship Centre, on 7 August 2011.  Here is a summary of what she shared with us about post-abortion grief:

More than twenty thousand pregnancies are terminated in Victoria every year, For many women the decision to abort is a traumatic one, yet they feel they have no other option. They are advised that it will be “for the best” and that this will be a solution to the problem of an unplanned pregnancy. Statistics are not available in Australia as to how many Christian women have had abortions, but it may be as many as one in four women in church on a Sunday. And some, perhaps most of these, experience what is now recognised as post-abortion grief. This differs from other forms of grief because it is shrouded in secrecy, and people feel they have no one they can talk to about it. Because society generally minimises the seriousness of abortion and doesn’t acknowledge that it may be followed by shame, guilt, grief and depression, women (and sometimes also men) often don’t make the connection and realise the source of their distress. They may also feel they would get little sympathy: after all “You chose to have the abortion”. Indeed they may feel themselves that they don’t deserve support, since “It was my decision”.

Immediately following a termination of pregnancy there is often a sense of relief, but then, any time from a week to decades later, characteristic features of post-abortion grief may appear. These may include intrusive thoughts or flashbacks that may have specific triggers - such as a baby’s cry, passing a baby’s wear shop or seeing pregnant women.  There may be a generalised uneasiness or irritability, insomnia, nightmares, self-destructive behaviours and eating disorders. Sometimes there is a preoccupation with becoming pregnant again- the so-called “Atonement Child”. Symptoms may occur seasonally - on the anniversary of the termination, or the date the baby would have been born.

Often the defences of avoidance and denial are involved in trying to “forget about” the abortion – some women cant remember where they had the abortion or when it was.  The mind, in many cases, totally suppresses the event.   However, given the right trigger, the grief and guilt can come out of left field incapacitating the woman even many years afterwards.

Once someone makes the connection between their distress and a past abortion, healing is possible. The steps to healing  begin with giving permission to grieve, listening without judging, being sensitive to the woman’s (or man’s) fragility. They often need encouragement to feel worthy of help, since they feel that they deserve to suffer. Then, the woman (or man) is encouraged to form a relationship with the dead child, including naming him or her. In other words, the opposite of the advice that would usually be given, to try to forget about it, “put it behind you” and move on.

These steps to healing may take place in an individual or couple counselling situation, but there is now a particular ministry called Rachel’s Vineyard that offers a weekend residential retreat  which has brought healing to many (both men and women) who have struggled after an abortion    The group is kept to small numbers – a maximum of 8 - and the team is made up of a number of trained counsellors. These weekend retreats are open to anyone of any religious belief or none, but conducted within a Christian framework. They include a series of meditations on the healing scriptures and the focus is on bringing their pain and guilt to God and accepting his healing and forgiveness.   Their unborn children are also brought to God for His protection.

Rachel’s Vineyard Retreats are being run in 37 countries and 15 languages worldwide which is a testimony to the success of this program and how it is releasing thousands of people from the guilt, shame and grief. 

International website:  http://www.rachelsvineyard.org 
Australian website: www.rachelsvineyard.com.au
Anne Neville may be contacted through Open Doors on (03) 9870 7044.

Denise Cooper-Clarke is convenor of the ETHOS bioethics task group.


October 17, 2011, 9:52AM
Great article Denise, good to see your pastoral, relational approach to ethics really being put into practice

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