The sticky summer air smelled of sunscreen. We lay out on her family’s back porch, absorbing sunrays in our swimsuits. We were 15, reading magazines, trying on watermelon lip balm, and talking about boys.
“Would you ever have an abortion?” she asked out of nowhere, looking up from her People magazine. I thought about it. Having a boy ask me out on a real-life date seemed like a faraway magical dream. Doing that one thing that would cause me to get pregnant seemed like a scandalous piece of fiction—impossible and terrifying.
“Um . . . no—no, I don’t think so,” I said with caution. Although I was only a young teen, I was aware that few topics were more divisive than abortion. So I treaded upon the conversation with care. She did, too.
“I don’t know what I would do,” she said thoughtfully. “I just don’t want to ruin my life by having a baby . . . you know?” She sighed. “But I’d like to think I could do it. Like in Gilmore Girls, right?”
I swallowed and nodded. I mean, what was the likelihood that we would have to face that decision, anyway? Our parents called us smart girls. And both of us were far less outgoing and boy-crazy than Lorelai Gilmore. I didn’t want to get into the topic further. So I changed the subject. “Do you want to jump in the pool?” I asked.
Six years later, jump into the pool we did. And neither of us knew how bewildering and deep it would be.
That girl on the porch was my best friend, the girl that I laughed and cried with on the phone from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. She was kind, patient, and hilarious. My friends were her friends. Her clothes were often confused with mine. We played soccer together, studied together, babysat together, and broke rules together. In almost all social circles, my name was usually said in the same sentence as hers. So when she called me one cold winter’s night, her voice shaky and solemn, I knew something was wrong. “Sorry I’ve been so hard to get hold of these past few weeks,” she explained, hundreds of miles away. “I just thought you should know, that, well, I had an abortion.”
My heart sank into my stomach. I didn’t even know she was pregnant! I steadied my breath. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had been catapulted into adulthood. Those innocent summer days giggling about boys and imagining our future husbands never felt farther away than in this moment. This was real.
“Oh . . .” I collected myself. “Are you OK?” I asked with compassion. Yet, I felt awkward inside. What was the right emotion? There were so many at once. What was I supposed to say? This person I’d known more intimately than anyone in the world seemed like a foreign stranger. Like never before, she needed my utmost love and support. I let her talk about it a little bit—but after she explained that her birth control pills somehow didn’t work, I felt like there was little left for me to add. “You’ll get better. Hang in there,” was all the encouragement I could muster. When the call ended, I felt sad, confused, and a little angry. After all, she just did it—and didn’t ask for help until after the deed was done. I felt like I didn’t have the chance to be there for her. I was saddened that my best friend couldn’t trust me with such a life-altering decision.
I’m not writing this to reiterate the pro-choice vs. pro-life movements most of us are all too familiar with, especially given the recent Planned Parenthood scandals. Rather, I’m here to shed light on an often overlooked topic: how to support the woman after she’s had the abortion. Considering that three in ten women are reported to have had an abortion, I’m surprised that there aren’t more resources out there explaining how to help loved ones through the tumultuous post-abortive feelings that many women experience. No matter your beliefs about the morality of abortion, chances are that someone who has touched your life has had one. And that’s a fact that deserves more awareness on our part.
I felt entirely unable to help as my best friend told me what she was going through. I watched her sink into depression and lose her self-confidence and self-identity, collecting DUIs and one lost job after another. Whether this was the direct cause of the abortion or due to other things going on in her life, it’s impossible to say. But I can say that the next several months—and even years—after she shared the news with me were hard on her. And as her best friend, I wish I could have been a better friend to her during this time.
Often, instead of helping her through her issues, I backed away, fearing that I would make it worse. She had become irritable, cynical, and not relatable during this time. I felt baffled. I didn’t know what to do. It’s a sensitive subject, and what was I supposed to do anyway? I convinced myself that I just didn’t have the resources and experience to help her. Perhaps our friendship wasn’t meant to last. But I still believe that there were things I could have done to sustain it. More so, I could have done much more to add to her well-being.
The distance between us became so great that it caused an irreparable rift in our friendship. Knowing how to support a friend who has had an abortion has been in the back of my mind ever since. So I spoke with two experts who work with women who struggle through pregnancy or abortion. Lisa is a licensed professional counselor at a premier healthcare provider in the Midwest. Adriana is a client advocate for a nonprofit organization that helps pregnant women assess their situations, provides accurate information surrounding their options, and supports them throughout their pregnancy decisions. She began as a volunteer in 2011 because of her own personal abortion experience. Eventually, she joined the staff full time in 2012. To protect the safety and identity of their clients, we have omitted their last names.
I wish I had learned their advice several years ago, long before I lost one of the most important people in my life. If you know someone experiencing the same struggles that my best friend did, here are ways you can help her.
A good friend is going to be a good listener.
“There’s no typical case; every single case is very unique,” shares Lisa, M.D., LPC. “A woman just didn’t have an abortion. She had everything else that was going on at that time that led to that experience.” In essence, an abortion is never a stand-alone choice. It’s always interwoven into one’s life. Lisa explains that as your friend is grappling with what’s happening, the best thing you can do is listen to her. Mirror back her emotions to show her that you understand what she’s sharing with you. Instead of focusing on the act of the abortion, it’s important to focus on the whole person. What’s her story? What’s going on here, and how can we help her grow from this situation?
Adriana stresses how vital it is to not add your own feelings to hers. “Allow her to speak about her experience under her own terms,” she says. “Let her tell you as much or as little about her story as she is comfortable sharing.” She goes on to explain that listening without judgment is key, especially if she feels guilt, regret, and shame.
Additionally, even if you feel like you know what you’re talking about, remember that it’s her experience, not yours. “The last thing in the world a friend should do is give advice,” Lisa explains. “It strips the woman of her own self-efficacy.”
Honor her feelings.
As you’re listening to your friend, pay attention to her feelings. Make sure that she doesn’t ignore them, pretend they’re not there, or numb them out. Encourage her to acknowledge her feelings and then express them. Is she feeling sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt? “Ask her if these feelings resemble other times in her life,” Lisa shares. “Then, ask her how she thinks she can make these feelings be constructive.”
Looking back, there were so many times that I saw my friend holding in her emotions. Instead of suggesting ways she could express them, I would change the subject, hoping I could cheer her up with a funny story. I wish I had invited her to work out with me, paint, or do any sort of physical or creative outlet that could have helped her better express her feelings.
At the same time that you’re there for her, remember that there’s only so much a friend can do. “Going with her for post-abortive counseling, even though you will be in the waiting room . . . will show her support and unconditional love, something that she may need much of,” Adriana shares.
Realize her courage—let her guide the conversation.
“Remember that it takes a great amount of courage for a post-abortive woman to share her story, as most feel a deep sense of sadness,” Adriana says. Recognize that if your friend is opening up and sharing her story, she is entrusting you with a lot. This is possibly the most vulnerable moment in her life. Don’t take her trust lightly. It is important that you give her the respect and dignity she deserves, regardless of your own opinions on the matter.
It’s also important that your friend is guiding the conversation. Let her share only what she is comfortable with. “Allowing her to tell you what she has been through at her own pace will help her feel safe in sharing with you her abortion story,” Adriana explains. If you have a question, and the conversation becomes uncomfortable—she stops talking about it or changes the subject—don’t press her to speak about the details. This may cause her to close up again if she feels forced or pressured to share her experience when she is not ready.
On the flip side, “You shouldn’t feel the need to have to answer or respond to everything your friend is sharing,” Adriana says. Sometimes a post-abortive woman just needs someone to share her story with. She might have kept it bottled up inside. The isolation that comes with holding in such a secret will affect her emotionally if she continues to keep it in. Acknowledge, however, that you’re not a professional. And if your friend seems to suffer, tell her that there’s no shame in talking to a professional about her struggles.
Fundamentally, the most important thing is for your friend to know that she is loved. Help her understand that her suffering is something she can grow from, transcend, and conquer. It is a physically and emotionally exhaustive experience. The best thing you can do is to be there for her, and let the power of loving support and compassion come through.