A Daughter's Grief and a Family's Burden
by Theresa Karminski Burke, Ph.D.
For ten years I've been counseling people traumatized by the effects
of abortion. Only twice has someone's father called me for help. The most
recent was a man I will call Mr. Davis. (I've changed names to protect
identities.) He asked me to help his daughter. "She needs counseling. Somebody
objective. God certainly knows I'm not." His voice trailed off as if in
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"Well," he stammered, "my daughter Gina, she is dating this guy. He
is verbally and physically abusive. He is ruining her life." Mr. Davis
sounded desperate. In his voice I could detect anger and hurt but worst
of all helplessness. "I can't just sit back and watch my daughter ruin
her life. This guy already has another kid he can't support. I don't know
what she sees in him. My Gina, she's a great girl." His tone changed to
a hushed whisper. "I love her so much but I'm losing her." He was silent
for a moment, then his voice cracked, "Please, can you do something? Can
you help her see what a creep he is? Gina won't listen to me anymore."
I informed Mr. Davis that I couldn't break them up but I could help
Gina examine her relationship and sort out her feelings about this man.
Then I asked Mr. Davis if anything else had happened between Gina and her
The question itself was a threat. Mr. Davis hesitated. Finally he answered,
"Well, there is something but it should really come from her. I think she
should be the one to tell you. After all, it's her life and I don't want
her to think I was talking behind her back."
"Did your daughter have an abortion?" I asked in a matter of fact tone.
The word was said. Abortion. There was silence. It never seems to fail:
I run The Center for Post Abortion Healing, yet people often struggle
to explain why they are calling.
I met his daughter that night. Gina is 19, with long blond hair and
sad blue eyes. "My dad made me have it," she explained. "He told me I could
not live with them if I didn't. He knew it might make me hate him but he
was willing to take that risk. I'd get over it, he said. I was not raised
to believe in abortion. In high school I even wrote a paper on it." Her
eyes welled with tears, shining like brilliant sapphires.
For three years Gina had never told anyone about the abortion; within
a few moments, the memory surfaced like a tidal wave of grief. The surges
of the experience came crashing against the fortress of my therapeutic
composure--as I attempted to steady her for the next gush of emotion.
Gina's story came out in between distressing sobs and gasps for air.
"I came home from college on a Friday to tell them about the pregnancy
and what we were planning to do. . . . My dad hit the roof. He wanted to
know what he ever did to deserve this. Dad took my boyfriend into the kitchen
to have a man to man talk. They would not let me in. Dad tried to pressure
him to convince me that abortion was the best thing."
With much difficulty, she continued. "Two days later I was up on a table,
my feet in stirrups. . . . I cried the whole way there. . . . My mom took
me. . . . I kept telling her I did not want this. . . . Please no! Don't
make me do this, don't make me do this. . . . I said it the whole way there.
. . . No one listened. When a counselor asked me if I was sure, I shrugged
my shoulders. . . . I could hardly speak. They did it. . . . They killed
Overcome with heartache, Gina began to moan. Bent over holding her womb,
she couldn't believe she had actually had an abortion. After a long tearful
pause, Gina continued, "Just as quickly as it had happened everyone seemed
to forget about it. My parents never talked about it. They were furious
when they found out that I was still seeing Joe. They never let up on their
negative comments about him. Things were not so good between Joe and me
either. We were always fighting. I was so depressed and did not know how
to handle my feelings. I was too ashamed to talk about the abortion with
my friends, and my parents made me promise not to tell anyone."
As her story unraveled, I saw many signals of complicated mourning.
Gina joined our support group and also came for individual therapy.
Gina was angry at Joe for not protecting her and the baby. Since it
was her own parents who wanted the abortion, the blame fell back on Gina.
She was enraged at her parents for not being able to accept her pregnancy.
They just wanted to get rid of the problem. Caught between two loyalties,
she was immobilized and unable to process her own feelings about the event.
Though Gina's family is nominally Christian, religious faith did not
play a role in the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Her parents believed
that insisting on abortion was saving her from a life of poverty and tribulation
with a man they did not believe could love or support their precious daughter.
Joe already had a child whom he was not supporting. They feared for her
future with such a man.
Now the future was here and Gina was still clinging to an abusive boyfriend.
Her self-esteem crumbled, depression was a constant companion, and her
parents watched sadly as a negative transformation robbed them of the daughter
Gina, a woman-child, desired approval and love from the parents who
had always been so vital in her life. She had not been given permission
to grow up, have a baby, and become a mother. When she aborted the pregnancy,
her embryonic womanhood had been aborted too. In a developmental sense
she was stuck: between her desire for independence and adulthood, and an
unsuccessful attempt to break the emotional reliance she had on her parents.
Immobilized and uncertain, Gina was incapable of making decisions, powerless
to assert herself, unable to love.
Anger and hurt filled her heart. There was grief, too--tremendous grief--over
a dead baby who would never be there to offer joy and hope. Anything related
to babies made her cry: baby showers, diaper commercials, even children.
Everything triggered relentless heartache. There was a wound in her soul
that simply would not stop bleeding.
Once she was in treatment for post-abortion trauma, Gina was able to
express some of these feelings. It was important that her parents enter
the therapy process with her in order to validate her loss and accept their
responsibility for contributing to the deterioration of their daughter.
I knew each parent would attempt to justify and defend their actions as
they struggled with their daughter's experience. This resistance or inability
to confront and admit emotional or spiritual pain is called denial. In
this phase of treatment, denial is a powerful temptation.
Gina's mom came first. She listened to her daughter and expressed sorrow.
I watched a pained expression on the woman's face that persisted along
with the inevitable BUT. I know you are hurting BUT we thought we were
doing the best thing. I realize this is hard BUT you must get on with your
life. You wanted the baby BUT how would you ever pay for it? BUT how would
you finish school, BUT, BUT, BUT . . . The list goes on and on like
dirty laundry, never ending, never finished. Each exception robbed Gina
of the gift of fully acknowledging her loss. The suspended feelings were
then buried, becoming depression, anxiety and self-punishment. Gina needed
permission to grieve. She was also deprived of the experience of genuine
compassion and acceptance from her parents. They could not accept the pregnancy;
now they couldn't receive her grief. She felt utterly rejected by them.
Father Knows Best?
Gina explained that her father had no idea what she had gone through after
the abortion. He had no idea how much she had sacrificed in order to please
him. It was important for her to tell him, so Mr. Davis was invited for
a session. The night before our meeting, he called me.
"My stomach has been upset all week since I heard about this meeting,"
he said. "I want to do what is best for Gina." Then his tone became more
formal and forceful: "I just want you to know that this is NOT a moral
issue to me. Gina had to have that abortion! I still think we made the
right decision. If I had it to do again, I would choose the same thing.
I know this is not what she wants to hear. Should I lie about it to make
her feel better? Is that what I should do? Tell her I made a mistake? I
cannot do that!"
With renewed determination, I explained, "Mr. Davis, I know you love
your daughter very much. I know that she loves you or she never would have
consented to have an abortion. The fact remains that your daughter lost
something. What she lost was a child. Her baby--your grandchild. Gina thinks
about it every day. She cries about it every night. The event is far from
over for her. You need to hear how the abortion has affected her."
Mr. Davis did not respond. With conviction, I continued, "When someone
dies, the worst thing another can say is 'it was for the best, it's better
this way.' This does nothing to comfort and console; it only makes the
person angry because you are not appreciating their loss or grief. Worse
for Gina is that you do not recognize the life that she is missing. Gina
misses her baby, a child you have not been able to acknowledge." Eventually,
Mr. Davis agreed that he would try to listen and that maybe he had something
to learn. I really couldn't hope for more than that. It signaled a sliver
of an open door. "Men are not prone to emotional mushiness," he reminded
me. He honestly wished he could feel sorrow and compassion over the baby,
but he could not. Nevertheless, he would listen if it would help his daughter.
Listening and Taking Responsibility
When Mr. Davis came in the next morning, he opened with a surprising statement.
"I had no right to make that choice," he said. After wrestling with various
points in our conversation all night, he admitted that for the first time
he realized that abortion was not Gina's choice.
The session began and it was very intense. Gina expressed her anger,
hurt and feelings of rejection. She also shared her grief about the aborted
baby. Her parents listened for the first time, without defending or rationalizing
what had happened. Gina also took personal responsibility for having allowed
the abortion to occur and wanted her parents to do the same.
Therapy helped these parents begin to see how they had forced Gina to
choose between them and the baby. I encouraged them not to make her choose
again between them and Joe. In bitterness and grief Gina might permit another
type of abortion, a termination of her role as their daughter.
Gina had been in deep psychic pain and felt rejected. She unconsciously
lashed back by forcing her parents to accept Joe, a man she knew her parents
unequivocally hated. This re-created the way her father had forced her
to accept having an abortion. Gina continued to cling to Joe despite his
abusive behavior. Her low self-esteem and powerlessness were confirmed
by his mistreatment of her. Joe also served to connect Gina to their aborted
baby. Giving up Joe would mean giving up the baby, whom she still needed
to grieve. In a vicious cycle, Gina had been punishing herself and her
Mr. Davis began to face some things for the first time. He was finally
able to consider the baby and to separate Joe from the pregnancy. Abortion
was a way to scrape out any symptom of his daughter's sexual activity and
heroically free her from the consequences of her own actions. He began
to realize that his daughter was a woman now, one he should not have tried
to control. He needed to trust Gina to be capable of making her own decisions
without the threat of abandonment.
As these interpretations became clear to Mr. Davis, denial could no
longer sustain its powerful grip. Suddenly grief came upon Mr. Davis. He
stared in disbelief, as if a light had abruptly cast shocking rays into
a blackened room.
His voice broke with anguish. "Oh my baby, my sweet baby, my Gina,"
he cried. "I am so sorry. I was so wrong." He pressed his face against
her cheek and the tears finally came. His tears mingled with Gina's as
they both wept. Gina put her arms around him. They embraced tightly as
her father gently stroked her long hair. All the anger, the bitterness,
the pent-up emotions, the grief, gave way. They sobbed in each other's
arms. He begged for her forgiveness. Between tears and tissues, he told
Gina she would have been an incredible mother. In one beautiful moment,
her motherhood had been validated and Gina wept with relief.
Within a few weeks, Gina attended a Rachel's Vineyard Retreat for post-abortion
healing. The retreat culminates with a Memorial Service and a Mass of Resurrection.
Gina invited both her parents and Joe to the services. During the Memorial,
each mother and father courageously got up and read letters they had written
to their aborted children. As Gina reconnected with her child in love,
her parents looked on amidst a myriad of tears, mourning and guilt. All
denial was broken. There was no doubt that abortion had finally become
a moral issue to Mr. Davis. The pain of his own sin was evident in the
bitter grief he expressed during the service. The agony and crucifixion
of this family was well underway. However, the gift of faith and hope in
our lives teaches us that after our painful walk to Calvary, the Resurrection
For the healing to continue, it is important that each family member
ask for God's forgiveness and be able to forgive others, too. Mr. Davis
will need to forgive Gina's boyfriend for getting her pregnant or the exoneration
he pleads for is in vain. Forgiveness takes work, prayer and grace but
it does not require liking the person who is being forgiven. Forgiveness
is a choice. A choice which says, "You have hurt me deeply, but I am not
going to allow the hurt and hatred I feel ruin my life anymore. I am not
going to lose my daughter, the way I lost my grandchild, because of my
feelings for you."
Abortion is a tragic mistake for all involved. The consequences on family
relationships can be far reaching and quite destructive. Yet there is no
evil beyond God's capacity to heal, forgive and rebuild.
Theresa Karminski Burke, Ph.D. is the author of Rachel's Vineyard
- A Psychological and Spiritual Journey of Post Abortion Healing (Alba
House, 800/343-2522). For Information, location and dates of Rachel's Vineyard
Retreats, contact The Center For Post Abortion Healing, P.O. Box 195, Bridgeport,
Pa. 19405, (610) 626-4006.
Portions of this article were originally published in St. Anthony Messenger,
Copyright 1997 Theresa Karminski Burke.