Compassion, Forgiveness & Healing
By Susan Swander
I need your compassion, as do many other women like me. I am a post-abortion woman. At the age of 54, I am finally confronting the damage that three abortions have done to me. I was one of the lucky ones; I did not suffer any physical damage to my cervix or womb. But the extent of the emotional, mental, and spiritual damage in my life is quite overwhelming to me. Here is a bit of my story – my history, my recovery, and my healing.
At 18 in the 60’s, I was sexually active and terrified that my parents would find out how I was living my life. I got pregnant and the father was long gone. I didn’t even know his last name. Now what was I supposed to do? Like many young women at the time I did two things. I got drunk, and I had an abortion. That seemed to be the answer in those days. That answer (that choice) scarred me for life. It changed me forever.
Unbeknownst to me, I spent the next six years running from the anguish going on inside. My drinking and my promiscuity increased dramatically. I discovered some of those wonderful hippie drugs we all loved. I started a deadly relationship with food and yo-yo dieting, and I fell in love a dozen times and couldn’t make one of the relationships work. During this time, I did meet the man of my dreams. He was perfect – well, almost. He had one flaw – he was married. So in 1974 when we wound up pregnant, there was only one easy choice – another abortion. I was so drunk the day of that abortion that I do not remember any of the details. That day is a fog to me except for one feeling that has remained – a deep pain.
For the next 11 years of my life, my coping tools all got worse – the drinking, the promiscuity, the food problems, and two marriages falling apart. Then, several things happened that began my long, slow journey of recovery and healing. God blessed me with a son in 1981, and in 1985, God gave me the gift of sobriety. My sobriety eventually led me back to my Catholic faith, which I had abandoned in my college days.
But my return to my faith did not occur until after I had one more abortion. In 1991, my married friend and I were pregnant again. This time I was sober. This time I wanted to keep the baby. I was given a choice – the baby or him. I was angry and hurt. But after so many years of craziness and foggy thinking, I caved in and had my third abortion.
For 36 years I was an ardent pro-choice advocate until circumstances of one fall day in 2003 again changed me and the course of my life. Neither of my vehicles was available to me, so I couldn’t go to my regular church for Sunday Mass. I went to a church closer to home, and after Mass picked up a church bulletin. There was a small box ad about Rachel’s Vineyard post-abortion Retreats that gave a web site address (www.rachelsvineyard.org). Being the good computer junkie that I am, I jumped online to the web site. I sat there reading through the site sobbing, with tears streaming down my cheeks. I knew in my gut that it was time for me to deal with my abortions.
I finally attended my Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat in April 2004. There are no words to describe this profound experience. What I write about it is fairly superficial detail. Thirty-six years of denial, shame, guilt, pain, sadness, and anger came to an end. I was shown how to look at the abortions through new eyes. I shared my experiences with 10 other post-abortion women. This was the first time I had ever told anyone about this part of my life. The acceptance and love and forgiveness offered to me began my healing. I faced my three children, named them and asked for their forgiveness. Through the miracles of this weekend retreat I know that God has forgiven me, and I am on my way to forgiving myself.
My healing is a process, a journey just begun. I made my dead children a promise, which I quote in full, “I promise you that I will no longer be silent about you. I will not hide in shame or guilt. I commit to turning our pain and sorrow into something good and positive. I will find a way to honor your existence and your deaths. I will let Jesus guide me in memory of you.”
I am discovering many ways of keeping this promise. I shared my story with my family. They were all unbelievably caring, loving and supportive. Again I am blessed. Not all post-abortion women get such positive, compassionate responses. Some have families who do not want to hear their stories, who cut them out of their lives, who get angry and mean. That is not what we need for our healing. I pray that all families try to understand the depth of the pain of the post-abortion woman and find compassion.
One of the joys of my retreat was the discovery that I can use my God-given talents for writing and speaking to keep my promise and to, perhaps, help others understand the difficulties of the post-abortion journey. So I am writing letters to editors and articles such as this. I am speaking out when appropriate. I walked in a 2004 Memorial Day parade in memory of Luke, Grace. and Benjamin. I proudly wore a T-shirt that says “Women Regret Abortion”. I will share my story openly and freely. I will not hide in silence, guilt, or shame any longer.
Since my retreat, I am a changed person. I am different today than I was in March 2004. I am forgiven and free today. How has this happened? What is different in me today – how do I know I’ve changed?
A metaphor for the process I’m going through dawned on me one day during my morning prayers. At 18, I was a whole, beautiful mirror. My glass was totally shattered into millions of pieces when I had the first of my three abortions. When I arrived at my RV retreat, I was like a shattered mirror. I brought all those broken pieces of glass to my retreat – the painful shards wounding me spiritually, emotionally, & physically. The very action of going to the retreat acknowledged how broken I was.
The retreat process helped me to lay all my brokenness at the feet of Christ. I was able to ask Christ and my children for forgiveness. The mercy and love of Christ helped me to name and claim my wounds. Christ gave me a frame for the broken pieces of glass. At the retreat, I began to put the pieces of my broken mirror back together inside that frame.
The early part of the process was really painful. I had to pull all those broken pieces of glass out of my soul and look at them. This is hard and painful work. With Christ’s love all around me, comforting me, and guiding me, I was able to do this work.
I returned home from the retreat with my broken glass pieces and the frame of Christ’s love. Since then, I have been laying those broken pieces in their proper place inside the frame. This is slow work. Sometimes I get a piece in the wrong place, and have to work on it some more to find where it belongs. Christ’s forgiveness and mercy hold all those pieces in place. And the rewards for the work are splendid. Each piece that is put into it’s right place looks beautiful and makes the rest of the growing mirror that much closer to whole again.
My work on my remaining brokenness has been twofold. Honoring the promise that I made to my children to make something good come out of our pain, I have been speaking out – through my voice or my pen. Each time I talk or write about my abortions and my healing another piece of my shame and guilt is cleaned off and fit back into the mirror in the frame.
My second effort is interior work – quiet, prayerful work. This is harder for me; silence is still difficult. I am so used to living with external noise (TV, radio, computer) to drown out the internal pain that quiet is hard sometimes. As my wonderful retreat facilitator recently reminded me, “there are many quiet, personal, slow, interior steps which must be made too. These are the deep ones, which knit you together and make you into a garment of warmth and safety for spreading God’s love and forgiveness onto others.” So, I’ve decided to make a concerted effort to do some real inside work.
God has been gracious enough to give me a few objective glimpses of the woman I am today. I am forgiven and free. I am free of the shame, the guilt, the self-torture, the self-loathing that I carried for so long. I am free from many of my old behaviors and reactions. I am not taking things as personally or critically. I do not worry nearly as much about my living son. I am free to love more openly than I have been able to in many years. I am free to listen, to learn and to speak my truth. I am free from the chains of my abortions.
What a blessing this journey is! I don’t think my mirror will ever be perfectly whole again. My abortions did change me forever. But even with a crack or two or a few missing pieces, I am more beautiful today than I’ve ever been. Thank you Jesus! And thank you Holy Spirit for guiding my pen, once more, as I let other post-abortion women who are suffering know they are not alone and that there is healing and forgiveness for them, too, in Christ.