Editors note: Throughout this article you will find quotes from some of the individuals who shared their own experiences with the author.
I remember my abortion like it was yesterday. Sitting in the cold waiting room of Planned Parenthood, my partner repeatedly squeezed my hand as I tried to hide my face from those sitting close to us, holding back tears. I was unexpectedly pregnant, but we were in a long-distance relationship while I was in graduate school halfway across the country. There was no imaginable path for us to become parents 2,000 miles apart. However, despite our circumstances, I wanted the baby—or the small clump of cells that would one day become a baby—so much that I felt it in my bones. The yearning was so overwhelming that I can barely describe it. But I simply could not drop out of school or juggle motherhood with my upcoming comprehensive exams. So I walked into the examination room and swallowed that fateful pill, ready to move on from this emotional but brief road bump in my life.
There was no way that I could have been prepared for what happened next. I took the second pill at home, which was described as causing “period-like cramps,” but quickly was in so much pain that it felt like I was dying. I bled for weeks afterward and cried every day for at least six months, measuring how far along I would have been in the pregnancy.
While those around me went about life as usual, my world had turned unrecognizably dark, lonely, and confusing. I tried Googling what I was feeling and only found religious materials demonizing abortion, while an OB/GYN just shrugged at my question if it was postpartum depression. No one around me understood the gravity of what I was going through. My partner tried, but it was not their body or their grief. They couldn’t feel it.
It wasn’t apparent at the time, but it turns out that I was far from alone. When we asked the TalkDeath community about their experiences with abortion grief, we received a flood of responses. They described having to terminate nonviable pregnancies, escaping abusive partners, not wanting to become parents, living through complex medical situations, being unable to afford supporting a child, and painful emotional and physical effects.
The decision was wrenching for some and straightforward for others. Almost all said that abortion was 100% the right call for them. However, even when there are no regrets, the post-abortion phase is not always uncomplicated—something many felt like they could not openly express, given the stigmas, hostility, and hyper-politicized debates around the procedure.
Abortion and the bodily autonomy it represents is an unequivocal right for those of us who can get pregnant, but those who have had complex experiences and grief have too often been made to suffer silently in a culture where bodies and healthcare are still up for a debate. However, here at TalkDeath, we want to discuss this hard and messy topic to both normalize and make space for everyone’s stories. If you’ve found your way to this article because you’re having a difficult time, know that you are not alone. This is for you.
Yes, Abortion Grief is Real – Now Let’s Talk About it
What is abortion grief?
Nearly 1 in 4 people capable of becoming pregnant in the United States will have an abortion by age 45. Previous surveys have found that an overwhelming majority have positive experiences, including feeling relief and confidence in their choice. That is unfortunately not true for everyone, though, and the causes are heavily contested. Some have theorized that abortion grief is partially caused by interruptions in the hormone cycle, similar to those that occur after an unplanned pregnancy loss.
Psychologists have also debated people’s risk for post-procedure depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder. However, little evidence supports that abortion directly leads to these adverse effects. In fact, a 2008 report from the American Psychological Association found that those more at risk for distress post-procedure experienced it due to social stigmas and factors such as:
- Perceived pressure from others to terminate a pregnancy
- Terminating a pregnancy that is wanted or meaningful
- Perceived opposition to the abortion from partners, family, and/or friends
- Lack of perceived social support from others
- Feelings of stigma; perceived need for secrecy
- Exposure to antiabortion picketing
Everyone’s situation is unique, and there are many other reasons someone might experience abortion grief. But what is it, exactly? Abortion grief does not have a standard definition, but it can be understood as a natural response to a loss: of a pregnancy, of someone’s life circumstances, of the person they were before the procedure. It can be common—and normal—to experience a bevy of unexpected emotions and reactions, including depression, anger, reliving the pregnancy or procedure, yearning, difficulty eating and sleeping, fatigue, guilt, and socially imposed shame.
It’s also normal to have conflicting emotions during the grieving process. For example, some people feel a sense of sadness and relief that they are no longer pregnant, all at the same time. These feelings can last for days, weeks, months, or even years after an abortion. Grief is different for everyone, and there is no set time frame for how one might move through it.
It won’t be surprising to many that our culture isn’t good at supporting people going through the grieving process. This is especially true when it comes to abortion. Abortion grief is often amplified by religious or cultural beliefs, relationship problems or abuse, and stigmas—all of which can isolate someone and make them feel like they have no one to talk to about their experience.
Members of the TalkDeath community expressed feeling like they could not voice their grief because it would be viewed as anti-choice or abandoning their feminist ideals. This detachment made it harder to cope. As one respondent said, “I believe all women should have abortion access, but there was no room in the broader conversation about abortions for how horrific mine was. I had to get one for medical reasons and just didn’t feel like I could #ShoutMyAbortion if it wasn’t completely an empowering one. It’s like if you say anything about it, people automatically jump to conclusions about what you’re trying to say. It was really, really lonely.”
Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a decision can be right and still be sad. Grief is a part of many significant transitions in our lives, but its presence does not reflect negatively on someone’s healthcare choices or plans for their life, career, and relationships. If your experience did not fall within the terribly few cultural narratives we have about abortion, that doesn’t mean it is wrong or invalid. You made whatever choice was best for you, and that is what matters.
Coping with Abortion Grief
While grief can feel never-ending when you’re in its throes, there are ways of coping and healing from this painful and isolating experience. Rather than push your emotions away, it is important to find ways to express and honor them. Here are some potential strategies to do so:
- Talking to someone you can trust: Sharing your experience with others can be so essential in processing your grief, as well as unexpectedly cathartic. Find a friend or loved one who is willing to truly listen with compassion and without judgment. If you feel you don’t have anyone like this currently in your life, consider calling a trusted reproductive crisis hotline, such as AllOptions. You can also start a diary or journal where you can document whatever you’re feeling in a safe and private space.
- Finding community: Reading other’s experiences of abortion can be incredibly reassuring, make you feel less alone, and help you clarify your own feelings. Books, blogs, articles, and podcasts like The Abortion Diary or My Abortion, My Life can be a great place to start. (However, please be aware—there are many anti-choice websites designed to make you feel bad about yourself and your decision, so be careful!) Abortion doulas can also be a wonderful support for finding such resources or community in your local area.
- Letting go of blame: For many people, becoming pregnant when they didn’t want to have a child can be the most challenging part about undergoing an abortion. However, it’s important to remember that around half of all pregnancies are unplanned. Recognizing how common unintended pregnancies are can help you to let go of the shame and self-blame you may be experiencing. You are not an awful person for making a “mistake.” In reality, you are strong and brave for making a decision that was right for you.
- Honoring your experience: Reproductive choices are so often hidden, which is so different from other forms of loss—no one is sending sympathy cards and casseroles. Therefore, it can be healing to find your own way to acknowledge and memorialize your abortion experience and grief. This could include creating a ritual like planting a tree or releasing a symbolic object, or writing a poem or letter. Whatever feels meaningful to you!
Thank you so much to all of those who shared their stories with me. Your vulnerability, strength, and generosity is so appreciated and made this article infinitely better.
Do you have any suggestions of rituals to memorialize the abortion?
Hi Faith! A ritual can be anything that feels special or moving to you. The options really are endless. In my case, I wrote a letter to my previous self and the life the could have been on the anniversary of my abortion and released it along with flowers at a beach near my house. It was small, but helped me gain some perspective on my experience. 🖤
I needed to read this. I do not regret having an abortion nor do I feel guilt or shame but I do still have grief after 15 years. Even though I would not change having had an abortion. I have found it so difficult to process due to not being the supposed “norm” (or if no one in my place is being heard due to politics) of abortion – either being fully relieved and moving on or fully regretful and guilty. The gaslighting is painful from anyone who does not understand how one can actually grieve a ball of cells or actually not regret it and still be sad. Thanks for making this article. If anyone reads this and understands, we are not alone.
It’s been 12 years and I still cry at night.. I had to get an abortion because we was young and our little ones was also.. I’m a mother of 3 at the time and my youngest being 1 year and a half…,… my hubby told me we couldn’t afford another child……. I had my first child at 14…. I didn’t do it then why now.. he rubbed it in saying my 3 kids would not have the things they want and need if we have another.. as a mom I was scared.. the fact that my kids will struggle I can’t.. I had to do it.. but why do I still feel guilt and pain.. apart of me want another kid but also i feel so guilty….
I had my abortion when I was 14 the guy that took my virginity I’ll never forget what he said to me when I told him “if you’re really pregnant idgaf get an abortion” fast forward im now 21 and after having kids with different people and being on and off many times we have found our way back to eachother we our now expecting our son and the constant guilt about the abortion is eating me alive
Thanks for sharing this. I needed to hear that it can be the right choice and still hurt. I had an abortion at 19, my partner and I were in college and couldn’t afford to have a child at the time. Had I known I’d be suffering this much, thinking about what could have been all the time, I would have handled things differently. I don’t regret what has been done but it’s been harsh and I’ve finally managed to come to terms with the fact that I am mourning my unborn baby. I’ve planted white roses to help me move on without forgetting.
Thank you for sharing this. I have 3 kids at home and am over 40. My husband is the love of my life. We have a stable home and it’s filled with love. But when we unexpectedly came up pregnant while on birth control, we were shocked. And all I felt was panic and dread. I started grieving the moment that plus sign showed up on the test. We were done. We had an amazing routine down, I was finally having time to myself and my husband and I were getting to plan getaways for the first time. I made the hard decision to abort, and my husband supported me 100% either way. I didn’t feel any regret or sadness until the pill started working the pregnancy out of my body. I still feel I made the best decision for myself and my family, but I honestly wasn’t expecting this crushing grief and sadness, and even regret. I have an ideal life! It feels selfish and I can’t imagine how many women in that clinic would’ve loved to keep their pregnancies if they were in my circumstances. The guilt is like an empty hole in my chest. I am 100% pro-choice, always have been. So I actually feel more guilt that I’m regretting my decision. Like a betrayal to the cause. Thank you for writing this, because I have been feeling utterly alone in my thoughts. The voice in the back of my head telling me I deserve all this.
I related so very much to your post. I am in my late 30s and had an unexpected pregnancy also. My youngest just started kindergarten and my eldest is in elementary school. It was so nice to finally have time and space to myself and I even accepted a promotion. I had always wanted three children, but my husband was adamant about only having two. However, at this point we couldn’t imagine starting over again. I had my abortion on Friday and I’m honestly so sad. While I’m grateful to have had the choice, I am filled with such grief – and frequently find myself wondering if we made the right choice. We have a small home, but plenty of love and maybe we could have found the space and squeezed out the time. It’s helpful to hear from other existing mothers who made the same choice… I hope it gets less heavy for us as tear goes on.
*time goes on.
(Sorry, strange autocorrect! There are plenty of tears going on lately too.)
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too am don’t through the exact same thing. I’ve always wanted 3 and my husband wanted 2. My kids are the same age as yours and things are “easy” for us now and can’t imagine having to start over. I had a missed miscarriage in April and fell pregnant in August, but my husband was adamant about not having another. So today I had an abortion and fell so much guilt and regret right now. I’m besides myself. How did you cope?
Thank you for everyone sharing your stories im glad I’m not alone, I had an abortion when I was 17, 3 years ago I’m now 20 and I still feel pain, guilt, loneliness, heartbreak as I did on that day! Day before Christmas I had my parents there and siblings but felt i was in an empty room, I will forever hate myself for it! It was the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me! Me and my partner at the time had no money we was in college, he left me while I spend new years on my own in hospital I grief on my own, cry on my own hurts so much I have no one to talk to all I think about is my unborn child, my biggest dream is to be a mother and I ruined that, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. Even still I can still picture that day I feel so guilty and that won’t ever change! If I could turn back in time I’d change so much, every night I wonder why I cry I just have no words to describe my heart ache, if anyone reads this thank you for taking your time to read it, your not alone🤍 love to all our angel babies🕊️💔
Thank you for everyone sharing your stories im glad I’m not alone, I had an abortion when I was 17, 3 years ago I’m now 20 and I still feel pain, guilt, loneliness, heartbreak as I did on that day! Day before Christmas I had my parents there and siblings but felt i was in an empty room, I will forever hate myself for it! It was the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me! Me and my partner at the time had no money we was in college, he left me while I spend new years on my own in hospital I grief on my own, cry on my own hurts so much I have no one to talk to all I think about is my unborn child, my biggest dream is to be a mother and I ruined that, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. Even still I can still picture that day I feel so guilty and that won’t ever change! If I could turn back in time I’d change so much, every night I wonder why I cry I just have no words to describe my heart ache, if anyone reads this thank you for taking your time to read it, your not alone🤍 love to all our angel babies & sending my prayers and love to all you women🤍
2 days after my 21st birthday, I had unprotected sex. I knew immediately that I was pregnant. My partner did not want to keep the baby, and I also couldn’t afford to have a child. I made a decision that I thought would give us both a better shot at life. There are 3 days in the year that I’m guaranteed to cry: the day the baby was conceived, the day I had the abortion, and the anticipated due date of the baby. I try my best not drag my partner down with my grief but I have no one else to talk to. It’s a secret I’ve kept for 2 years. I hope to one day find peace.
I’m 20 years and had an abortion when I was 18 years it my senior year in highschool I wanted my baby but my partner was scared and it still feels like yesterday I become so overwhelmed with emotion when I think about it I haven’t been the same sense !
Thank you all for sharing your stories, it makes me feel so much less alone. Im 35 and decided years ago I didnt want to be a parent. I was 100 percent sure I wanted an abortion. The pill abortion was the most blindingly painful thing I have ever experienced, I thought I was dying. And then I felt like the clinicians were gas lighting me about how much it hurt when I told them. I also felt extremely violated by the requirement for a vaginal ultrasound. So disturbing and traumatic.
I was so sad, devastated in the months following, but friends assured me it was hormonal and would pass. I told myself I wasn’t grieving because a good feminist doesn’t believe that the fetus is a life (so I thought) ….I felt somewhat recovered after a while.
Then, one night I woke up screaming , having realized somehow that it would have been my due date. Since then I am crushed by the weight of the knowledge that I chose to kill my potential child. I grieve them endlessly, imagining their face and their joy. I have developed ptsd like reactions to any kind of mention of pregnancy, I cant even say the word out loud. I feel acute trauma in my pelvis and I think I will never be able to have penetrative sex again. Im so so so so so sad. I write letters to my fetus and throw them in the ocean. I call them my little fish. It is very lonely grieving someone who never got to exist. I have one freind who understands, but I’m afraid to talk about it, not wanting to trigger abortion greif in my friends. I’m still entirely pro choice, and wish deeply that we could reject the false polarization of whether a fetus is a life or not and honor the deep painful complexity of the burden of being born with a womb