After we discussed helping a friend deal with a miscarriage, a reader asked us for tips on how to support a friend in the similarly sensitive situation of going through an abortion. From the decision process to the aftermath, abortion can bring up complicated emotions — but we have some advice on helping your friend deal with them.
I talked to Jennifer Baumgardner, activist and author of Abortion & Life, who says that when a friend has an unintended pregnancy, "the most important thing at any stage is not assuming anything." Definitely don't say something like, "you're not going to keep it, right?" — regardless of your friend's life situation. Steph Herold, founder of I Am Dr. Tiller, concurs:
The best thing you can do is listen to your friend's needs and respond with compassion and without judgment. When your friend tells you she's pregnant, resist the urge to say "congratulations!" or "uh oh, what are you going to do?" The best thing to say may be, "how do you feel about it?" [...] Ask how you can be helpful and what she needs from you. No matter how well you know her and her life, this is ultimately her decision. Instead of telling her what to do, let her tell you how she feels. Let her take the lead in the conversation.
She adds, "Don't assume your friend has told her partner about the pregnancy or the abortion. Don't assume she's told her parents or other friends, or anyone besides you." And "don't assume anything about your friend's birth control use. Don't ask why she was or wasn't using birth control at the time she got pregnant."
If your friend chooses to terminate her pregnancy, there are lots of things you can do to make the process easier. Says Herold,
One practical method of support is finding out exactly what she can expect while at the clinic and what to expect after the abortion. Planned Parenthood has some helpful information about what happens during an abortion. Ask your friend if she wants you to call the clinic and get a breakdown of what the day is going to be like, or what she has to do before the abortion appointment. Let her know that she has the right to ask the clinic as many questions as she wants about the procedure, the doctors, the staff, and that she has the right to go to a clinic that is safe and treats their patients with respect.
She also may need someone to drive her to the clinic — you can offer to be that person. You can help her figure out if her insurance covers abortion, or help her seek funding from her local abortion fund. Baumgardner notes that abortion doulas can offer support to women going through the procedure — you can help her figure out if a doula is right for her, or help her locate one.
Baumgardner advises treating an abortion like a situation "where your friend needs care." So if you can think of things that might make her feel cheered up or cared for — favorite foods, flowers, magazines — make her a care package. Adds Herold,
After the abortion, she may feel groggy and crampy (similar to how she'd feel during a period). You can stock up on tea, soup, or whatever comfort foods she likes, in addition to extra pads, comfy clothes, and a heating pad. Ask her before hand what she might want to do after the abortion—some women are ready to go on with the day, while others want to nap and relax. Whatever you decide to do, make sure it's what she wants. Supporting your friend means listening to what she needs, even if it's not necessarily what you'd want in the same situation.
If your friend is feeling upset or conflicted about her abortion, you may be tempted to tell her it's not a big deal. But this might not be what she wants to hear. Baumgardner says you should avoid telling your friend things like "it's just a mass of cells." Nina de Gramont, co-editor of Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, & Abortion, says, "don't be dismissive. She doesn't need to hear that the embryo was the size of a kidney bean." She adds,
Don't try to talk her out of feeling upset. If she's experiencing feelings of grief or loss, treat her like you would anyone going through mourning. Be kind, supportive, and loving.
On the flipside, if the friend doesn't feel upset about her abortion or isn't grieving, be supportive and understanding about that too. Not everyone will experience these feelings.
This tip is very similar to the advice we gave about miscarriage. If you've had (or considered) an abortion before, Baumgardner says you should feel free to share that with your friend, but let her know that you and she might have different experiences. Herold agrees:
Even if you've had an abortion before, you may not understand or know what your friend is going through. Instead of saying things like, "I know where you're coming from," try something like, "that sounds really hard" or "you must be going through a lot."
Though you shouldn't assume you know what she's feeling, you can, as Herold says, "let her know that she is not alone, that 1 in 3 US women have an abortion by 45, and she can even read some of their stories."
Baumgardner points out that in the US, many women get the message that abortion is gross and shameful and shouldn't be talked about. So if your friend does want to talk about her experience, she may not feel like she has an outlet. You can be that outlet by expressing "total compassionate interest" in what's going on with her. You don't have to pry, but let her know that you're totally open to hearing what she has to say. De Gramont adds,
[L]istening is key. Some women won't want anyone making a big deal about it: they'll want to get it over with privately and move on. Others will need more TLC. Watch your friend for cues, and follow those cues as best you can.
There are lots of resources available to help your friend with any specific concerns or questions she may have. Everyone I talked to recommended Exhale, which describes itself as "the nation's premiere organization addressing the emotional health and wellbeing of women and men after abortion." Herold also recommends the talk lines Backline and Connect & Breathe — all three are free. Faith Aloud, she says, is "the place to call" for faith-based counseling. She adds, "The Abortion Care Network has a handout, Healthy Coping After an Abortion and a wonderful workbook called Emotional and Spiritual Resolution After Abortion that may be helpful too."
De Gramont points out that an unintended pregnancy and/or abortion is "a situation ANY woman in the world can find herself in." Of course the way your friend feels about it will be unique to her — but the commonness of the experiences means there are a lot of resources out there she can take advantage of. And the support of her friends and loved ones — even if that support means giving her plenty of alone time and space — will make the process a lot easier.
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