I had been looking forward to my post-abortion healing retreat weekend for months. Years, in fact. The grief and crushing guilt after my abortion 23 years ago nearly cost me my life. My check for the nominal fee was cashed, and the Herculean logistics of childcare and shuttling my three sons to and from activities while mommy was away was complete. As a firm non-believer in GPS, I wrote out my driving directions using the markers from the kids’ art table and set off on my 40-mile journey to closure.
Located atop a hill, surrounded by fields and trees, the retreat house was perfectly bucolic and remote. Including me, there were eight retreatants, seven staff members (including the lead facilitator, a nurse, and a certified counselor), and – although it was conducted as an interdenominational Christian retreat – a priest.
I checked into my room and found a welcome packet filled with inspirational pamphlets and a gift arrangement that included a journal, a coffee mug filled with candy, and prayer cards. Then I headed back downstairs to sup on the homemade minestrone soup that was waiting for us in a crock pot upon arrival and enjoyed small talk with the others about how far we’d each traveled to get there, the traffic, and the beautiful weather.
The formal “work” of the retreat was to take place in a large, carpeted room with big comfy chairs arranged in a circle. Each chair had a lovingly handmade donated afghan on it, a box of tissues, and a tiny trash can. It looked eerily like the recovery room of the abortion clinic where I had worked. One of our first spiritual exercises after briefly introducing ourselves was to pick a rock to carry around with us throughout the weekend as a physical reminder of the weight of our own personal burdens of guilt, grief, regret, anger, shame, and sadness associated with our abortions.
The first “grief stone” I chose was the only rectangular one among the circle of rocks around the low table in the center of the room. I thought that that was somehow appropriate, given my additional guilt and shame of working in an abortion clinic for years piled on top of the devastation of my own abortion.
A few unexpected surprises of the retreat led me to see that first stone as a weapon, not as a physical manifestation and representation of the heavy psychic burden I carried. I was almost immediately plunged into a vivid daydream of using the sharpest edge (which admittedly, wasn’t very sharp at all) to scrape at my forearms. The same way I used to when I would cut myself for release to ease the maelstrom of emotional fury so many, many years ago.
I hadn’t tried to deliberately hurt myself in decades. Something was wrong. I approached the retreat’s counselor and confessed that I could not be trusted with a pointy rock, so I traded it in for a smooth stone. I held my new smooth gray grief stone in the palm of my hand and felt its heft. He was very dusty, so I took him to the sink in the bathroom and scrubbed him off. There, on the surface, I noticed a crack…in the shape of a cross. I had the right stone now.
Part of the retreat rules are that participants are to carry their grief stone with us at all times – to the bathroom, the shower, the breakfast table – until we are ready to lay down our burden. Each retreatant chooses the time to relieve oneself of the burden, sets the stone down somewhere at the retreat house, and then shares with the assembled mourners and staff why it was time to stop carrying the weight around.
The intended purpose of the relinquishing of one’s heavy rock of grief is meant to symbolize relief from the burden of grief, anger, and guilt. I’d thought this was not all that dissimilar from the Jewish tradition of leaving a “stone of remembrance” upon the grave marker of a loved one. But those grieving Jews have a cemetery to visit, a physical place to leave their tangible representation of memorial and grief. We who mourn children lost to abortion have no such monument to our dead.
After a morning prayer service and breakfast, it was time to divide the group in half to share our own personal abortion stories. Although I’ve written about my abortion and working in an abortion clinic, spoken publicly about it, and even been interviewed for radio broadcasts, I simply did not feel safe enough in this place to share my history in mixed-gender company. Admittedly, I was still harboring anger and resentment about not knowing that men would be present at the retreat. I fully acknowledge the very real grief of post-abortive men and agree that they too deserve assistance on the road to forgiveness, spiritual healing, and reconciliation – I just wrongly assumed that this retreat was for women only (with the exception of the priest, of course) and that men were provided a separate therapeutic experience tailored to their role in the abortion decision. Clearly, his experience is fundamentally different from that of the pregnant woman who physically endures the pregnancy and the violence that ends it.
So I left the retreat early = with my smooth cross-stone. During my hour-long drive home, I felt warmer and calmer and more at peace the more distance I put between me and my failed attempt at scripted healing. I drove under an overpass with a large street sign bearing the name I’d chosen for my child while he was still alive, still growing inside me. I was going in the right direction. I wasn’t leaving my dead child behind, but I was bringing home a memorial to him as I kept driving – away from the retreat and toward my three living children, my home, my husband, and my future.
I lifted my stone out of the car but hesitated at the door to my home. I would not bring him inside. His stone has a place in the garden, a part of my family’s surroundings. My stone is no longer a burden – it is a memorial. Now I have a place to visit. Now he has a place to be remembered.
Ministries that provide counseling and spiritual healing services provide invaluable assistance to the thousands of women and men grieving after abortion. The dedicated staff, volunteers, pastors, and priests provide comfort and solace to help so many bridge the chasm of unspoken sorrow in their souls with a forgiveness that helps them reach the stability of the shore where true healing happens, and the future can unfold unencumbered by the weight of the past.
My own journey was (and still is) intensely personal and could not have happened any other way.
There is no such thing as one-size-fits all healing.
Author’s Note: If you or someone you love is suffering from unresolved emotions stemming from a past abortion, please contact any (or all) of the following remarkable organizations dedicated to helping heal those wounded by the violence of abortion. Find what works for you – don’t give up. You’re worth it.
–Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries (Be sure to inquire about whether or not the retreat time and location you choose is co-ed or women-only.)