Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 20, 2003
Women seek to heal wounds of abortion
Relief gives way to shame, anguish
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
A baby's cry. A mother kissing a scraped knee. A dad playing football with his son. Mother's Day. Triggers abound, reminding you that you could have experienced these moments, if not for that one painful act.
Abortion often leaves anxiety, shame and endless questions in its wake, says Theresa Burke, a psychotherapist, author and mother of five from Pennsylvania.
"Even women who feel immediate relief after an abortion can find themselves suddenly overwhelmed by horrific bouts of guilt, rage, numbness or depression, triggered by the anniversary of the abortion, the baby's due date, a new pregnancy, the loss of a loved one or seeing pictures of fetuses."
Burke, who has been treating women struggling with post-abortion issues through individual counselling and group therapy sessions since 1986, led a workshop on Healing the Wounds of Abortion at the Catholic Pastoral Centre Oct. 9. Her husband Kevin Burke, a social worker and clinical supervisor, assisted. Some 25 abortion counsellors, members of the Project Rachel team and pro-life advocates attended the event, put on by the Family Enrichment Centre.
Burke said the immediate flood of relief a woman might have expected through an abortion, and perhaps experienced, is quickly replaced by the anguish and grief of ending her child's life. Post-abortion stress lasts for years, often worsening with the passage of time and the anniversaries of what "would have been."
Drawing on the experience and insights of hundreds of her clients, Burke described how repressed feelings may be acted out through self-destructive behaviour, broken relationships, obsessions, eating disorders, parenting difficulties, and other emotional or behavioural problems.
After abortion, many women face a daily internal battle between condemning and defending themselves. "The wound strikes at the heart of their spiritual life, causing feelings of guilt, shame, self-loathing and alienation from God," Burke explained.
These symptoms can plague women's lives for decades, she said. The secret is borne deeply in the hearts and souls of those who suffer. "They are frightened to expose this shame and grief for fear that others will judge them or think less of them."
Many women reenact their abortion experiences through repeat pregnancies and abortions, substance abuse, eating disorders, broken relationships and worse.
But Burke said women who have long punished themselves for aborting their babies could find forgiveness, peace and hope through Rachel's Vineyard Ministries. The ministry has been offering weekend retreats since Burke launched it in 1996.
Today there are ministry teams in nearly 40 states and four countries, including Canada. In Edmonton, the Rachel's Vineyard team has already put on two retreats this year and is planning another one for January. In Calgary, the ministry has been active more than two years. This year alone there will be 250 retreats held around the world in five languages.
Rachel's Vineyard is rooted in Jesus, Burke said, noting that every exercise, Scripture and ritual used in the retreat provides an opportunity for the women to experience Jesus and to dialogue with him.
The retreat exercises help participants accept forgiveness and reconnect with their lost children on a spiritual level. Through many special psychological and spiritual exercises, participants journey through their grief and experience God's transforming power and healing in their lives.
"It's impossible for a mother to reconcile with the death of a child without the presence of God," Burke said. "God wants to help women to rebuild their lives."
The retreat allows women to confront their past. Participants dramatize Scripture passages that deal with condemnation and grace. Reenacting the story of the woman caught in adultery, for example, helps post-abortive women realize they have been condemning or stoning themselves even though God is ready to forgive, Burke said.
Participants tell their life stories, some for the first time. They assign their aborted baby a name and write a letter to him or her. Sometimes Burke hands out little dolls to participants as symbols of their aborted children. One woman who had had eight abortions received eight dolls and slept with them overnight. "Our retreat is filled with symbols."
The retreat culminates with a Mass of Resurrection and a memorial service, giving the women a chance to grieve for the loss of their aborted child. Follow-up sessions are recommended to help participants to process their experience and continue developing a spiritual life.
Burke said the Church should no longer treat the word "abortion" as a "dirty taboo word" and should instead welcome those women who have suffered years of trauma. "Dismantling the secret (of abortion) is invaluable for recovery."
Lucie Tettamente said the Rachel's Vineyard retreat works. After suffering in silence for more than 20 years following an abortion, she finally found peace and forgiveness after attending a retreat in Calgary over two years ago. "The retreat allowed me to grieve my child and to forgive the (child's) father and to forgive God," she said after the workshop.
Following the death of her first husband, Tettamente was date-raped by a prospective boyfriend. She became pregnant and decided to have an abortion. For the next two decades, she would keep the abortion a strict secret, even from her two children. But inside, the woman was boiling with guilt and rage. Counselling sessions did not help much.
"I use to walk with a mask on," she recalled in an interview.
She said the time away at the Rachel's Vineyard retreat gave her an opportunity to deeply enter the grieving process, identify all the ways her abortion had affected her, and to deal with the pain and suffering for good.
"I am grateful to have experienced God's healing and forgiveness with other women in an atmosphere of complete acceptance and trust," Tettamente said. "For a long time I was haunted with heavy guilt, tormented by thoughts of what my child would have been like. Through the (Rachel's Vineyard) retreat, God cleansed my heart, gave me a peaceful mind and washed away my guilt."
Tettamente now speaks publicly about abortion at schools and parishes. She is a resource person for the archdiocesan Project Rachel and a member of the local Rachel's Vineyard team.