After an abortion: Coping and Caring for Yourself
Abortion is a very common experience for women. Transgender and non-binary people have them too. In Canada, about one in three women will have at least one abortion in her lifetime.
You may feel isolated in this experience but you are not alone.
People from all walks of life are involved in abortion decisions:
- every financial and social background;
- religion and spirituality;
- sexual identity;
- culture and ancestry;
- the majority in their 20s and 30s, but many are also teenagers and in their 40s;
- single, in a long term relationship, polyamorous or married;
- about ½ are parents already, trying their best to care for the children they already have;
- about 1/2 will need more than one abortion;
- people who thought they would personally never make this choice (or be in the situation to need to make it) or who don’t agree with abortion;
- men from similar range of backgrounds, identities and life experiences.
Fact: Abortion has existed in nearly all times, places and cultures.
When done legally, like it is in Canada, it is an extremely safe procedure with a less than 1% chance of complications. Yet tens of thousands die as a result of unsafe abortions every year in places where it isn’t legal. Even more suffer unnecessary pain, infertility, injury and illness. Whatever the risks, women continue to make the decision to end pregnancies that happen at the wrong time. They have strong reasons to do so – otherwise abortion would not continue to be common even when stigmatized, unsafe or illegal and we would not have fought so hard for the right to safe and legal abortion here in Canada.
Because of the weight of stigma, you may:
- Feel judged by people in your life or worry about that possibility;
- Have heard or seen negative messages about abortion many times;
- Judge yourself.
Whatever the beliefs or opinions of others or even your own, what matters most is that all any of us can do is to make the best decision possible in the circumstances we are in.
What you know:
- the importance of bringing children into situations in which you can care and provide well for them;
- you may not want to have children yet or at all;
- you may still be building the foundation for your future family;
- you may not have had enough time since your last child was born;
- you may need to care for the children you already have first;
- you may be finished with your family;
- you may have other commitments and goals you need to focus on or challenges you are dealing with.
Whatever your reasons, the truth is that you make a choice from a thoughtful, caring and responsible place.
How You Might Feel Afterwards
Possible feelings about the choice:
- Trapped between difficult options;
- Influenced by circumstances forcing a decision.
How you feel about your choice will depend on these kinds of factors as well as what else was happening in your life at the time.
There is no right or wrong way to feel after an abortion. How you feel will also be influenced by:
- whether you wish circumstances were different;
- how other people feel about the pregnancy;
- how you feel about abortion and your life in general.
You are less likely to be upset if:
- you are able to take time to think about and work through your feelings about the decision beforehand;
- if you have good support and coping skills;
- you were at least mostly sure about your decision;
- you felt like it was an acceptable choice to make.
Many will feel a strong sense of relief afterwards. You may:
- be glad you could make the choice that was best for your family and can now move forward;
- also feel relief that the decision has been made, especially if it was a challenging one, and that the procedure is over.
Possible other feelings:
- shock that you are/were pregnant or experience a feeling of numbness or overwhelm throughout this process;
- denial or a kind of survival mode.
When this happens, you can intentionally set aside time later to deal with your emotions when it feels safer or you feel more ready to do so. Sometimes, regardless of how you handle them, your emotions won’t fully surface until something happens in your life to make them come back. It is never too late to work through what happened or get support.
Fact: Despite what you may have heard, most women do not feel seriously depressed after an abortion. You are much less likely to experience depression after ending a pregnancy than after giving birth.
Once you have made the decision not to continue a pregnancy, the next decision you need to make is how you are going to carry that experience with you in your life. You have some choice in how this will affect you now and in the future.
- What meaning are you going to give to what has happened?
- What can you do to cope in a healthy way?
- What changes will you make in your life as a result of what you have been through?
- How will you care for yourself and allow others to care for you?
Making a decision about a pregnancy often shines a bright light on your life, showing you what is working and what is not.
- It can help you see things more clearly and refocuses you on your goals and priorities;
- It might help you better understand what you want;
- It can especially help you decide whether you want to be a parent, when, how and with whom.
- Your next pregnancy can be more planned and you can prepare first (relationship, finances, home, career and health.
A crisis like an unintended pregnancy can be a motivator for important changes and growth. This can be challenging but you can choose to focus on the new perspective you are gaining, and trust that this process will ultimately have a positive impact. Everything that happens can offer valuable lessons and the opportunity to make things better.
Getting the Support You Need
When difficult or even simply intense or stressful things happen in our lives, most of us have a need to tell our story and have it be held in a caring and understanding way.
It might be helpful to keep in mind that:
- Only some people will be truly supportive, so deciding who not to tell can be just as important as deciding who to tell;
- Even if you don’t feel comfortable it can be good to think of someone you could tell if you needed to;
- Feeling like your experience is a secret can add to a sense of shame and isolation.
- When you do tell your story, people might surprise you, being more supportive than you expected or even disclosing that they too have had an abortion (remember – its 1 in 3!);
- People’s judgement has more to do with their experiences and how much stigma they have absorbed from the world around them.
Have courage and continue to reach out until you find someone who is accepting of you and what you’ve been through.
Although support is important for everyone, the kinds of support we need can be different for each of us:
- You might simply need someone to ask how you’re feeling, listen to your response and acknowledge what you’re going through without trying to fix it.
- Some may need space while others need someone to be physically present.
- Some may need to talk, while others might need to have time alone to think and feel.
- You might need comforting or you may just need distraction.
You can help others support you by letting them know what you need as clearly as possible. If any of this feels too difficult, if the people in your life are very unsupportive, or if your emotions feel unmanageable and you are having trouble coping, you may need to seek professional help. If you’re not sure where to turn, start by contacting the abortion clinic for counselling or resources.
How To Cope?
You also need to support yourself through this experience by finding coping skills that work for you. We all have things we use in this way, although not all of them will truly help us to heal. Some kinds of coping strategies are healthier and have a more positive effect on our lives.
Some things may feel helpful in the moment, but have destructive consequences or make you feel worse in the end like:
- drugs and alcohol;
- spending too much money;
- withdrawing from people you love;
- taking your feelings out on others;
- staying busy and pretending to be fine when you’re not;
- even things that are healthy when done in a balanced way can become unhealthy when done too much or not enough.
That said, you need to try not to judge yourself. To cope with a difficult time you might use whatever tools you have, whether you think they are good for you long term or not. Often the ways we cope developed in childhood to help us get through things that were overwhelming or felt out of our control. They began for a reason and have probably helped us to survive.
If you feel like you are choosing ways of coping that are harmful in some way, you can:
- choose to be more aware and make small shifts when and if you are able;
- think of adding in more positive things rather than to stop doing the things we think are less healthy;
- go for a walk;
- write in a journal;
- eat a good meal;
- breathe deeply;
- have a bath;
- make art;
- listen to music;
- go outside;
- talk to someone;
- do anything else that might help you feel better in the moment as well as in the long run.
Ways to Care for Yourself
- Cultivate self-compassion: Many of us are very hard on ourselves. We blame ourselves or feel badly even for things that are out of our control. Society expects a lot from us – often more than is humanly possible. Being self-compassionate means remembering that you are a good person in a difficult situation and that you are doing the best you can. It means speaking to yourself the way you would to someone you care about and giving yourself the same kindness and care you offer to others.
- Practicing Self-Care: As a way of being kind to yourself, you may want to take time to do the things you enjoy or that make you feel better when things are challenging.
- Remembering Your Reasons: If the choice was difficult, you probably had strong reasons to make it. Keeping those reasons in mind can help you to remember the goodness in your choice when you look back on it in the future. You may also want to refocus energy on the areas of your life that you prioritized by not continuing the pregnancy, such as family, work, school, health or finances.
- Creating Safe Space: In order to heal, we may need to create a space in our lives where we feel safe enough to do so. For some of us that may mean:
- going to an actual place we feel comfortable;
- opening up space in our schedule;
- finding ways to remove ourselves, either temporarily or permanently, from the influence of people whose opinions or behaviours hurt us, make us feel badly about ourselves, or otherwise make it harder for us to cope and care for ourselves.
- Choosing Forgiveness: Forgiveness happens when we choose to set someone free of blame or guilt. You may need to forgive others for their behaviour or you may feel the need to forgive yourself. Forgiveness does not mean:
- forgetting what has happened;
- we don’t also change our behaviours and relationships;
- we are not angry or disappointed or hurt.
What it does mean is choosing to move on the best way we can. It is a way of finding peace.
- Finding Closure: Closure is something that allows you to honour an experience while also letting it go. It means doing something that symbolizes your decision to leave behind difficult thoughts or feelings while carrying the learning and growth that you have gained with you. It is important to only do this when you feel ready. Examples include:
- writing a letter (that you don’t need to send);
- floating flowers away on the water;
- lighting a candle;
- planting a tree;
- purchasing a special piece of jewelry to wear.
- Working with Difficult Emotions: If you experience difficult emotions such as:
it can be important to acknowledge and feel them when you are ready.
Avoiding emotions can help in the short term, but long term it can sometimes make you feel worse. However, it can also be harmful to let your emotions take over and cause you to act in ways you normally wouldn’t. Although it can take practice, you may want to try accepting your emotions as they are, allowing them to simply be there without either burying or letting them explode. Getting support from someone you trust can often help.