Healing the wound of abortion has been, in many ways, the central spiritual task of my life. The conviction that my youngest sibling was a living, beloved human being would not let me go – even in my adolescent and college years, when I subsumed my grief and fear in affirming my parents’ pro-choice beliefs and attempting to secure their approval, love, and protection, which had been denied to my sibling.
The abortion happened when I was in second grade. I was already the eldest of four siblings. My parents were sunk in the turmoil of a young couple facing strained finances, crushing responsibilities, and limited family support. I wasn’t supposed to know about the abortion, but I overheard family conversations that piqued my suspicions.
When I was 11-years-old, I asked my mom if she had ever thought about having an abortion. She very gently and honestly said, “Yes.” We were in the kitchen. I remember I had to leave the room. When I was away from my mom, my feet fell out from under me. I began sobbing silently and uncontrollably. I loved my three living siblings with my whole life; in many ways, my identity centered on them. I could not understand why my mom would assume that I might not love my aborted sibling just as much.
In the pre-internet days of my late childhood and early adolescence, I scoured the library for books about abortion: pro and con; clinical studies; confessions of women who lauded or regretted their own choices to abort their children. I remember searching urgently through these books for some hint that my grief and anguish for my lost sibling were not strange or unfounded. I can see in my mind the two brief paragraphs in one book that described siblings’ “survivor guilt” – but the commentary was limited and gave no indication that this was a common reaction, or that there was anything to be done about it. I assumed my pain was an anomaly. It was not until my I read Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved that I encountered a very personal story of a girl haunted by a baby sibling who died at their own mother’s desperate, grieving hands.
Years later, a good friend told me she had heard about “sibling survivor” retreats, and I was viscerally relieved to know that there was a name to describe people like me, and that these people had the courage to grieve and receive God’s healing for the loss of their aborted siblings. But I wasn’t brave enough to seek out the retreat. Doing so would have required me to face the fact that my grief was powerful enough to estrange me from my family members, who, when my sadness rose to the surface, continually said to me: “Why does the abortion matter so much to you? You weren’t the one who had the abortion. It wasn’t your choice.”
Facing my grief’s power meant facing the fact that I, like my aborted sibling, was vulnerable to my parents and family—not vulnerable to the point of physical death, but vulnerable to the point of rejection on the grounds of my obstinate obsession.
The Entering Canaan Sibling Survivor Retreat was a turning point in my life. The day’s gentle, intent pace; Eucharistic focus, and intimate setting allowed time to stop and expand, encompassing both the pain of the past and hope for the future. Father Conrad and Theresa stewarded us with very gentle paternal and maternal care: a beautiful counterpoint to the gender enmity that spurred the abortions in our families. It was so strange and deeply comforting to be in a place where the central spiritual wound of my life was acknowledged and soothed, not idolized but transformed through a call to acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and celebration of my youngest sibling’s brief life on earth and eternal life in Heaven, where she or he now intercedes before the face of God for the healing of my whole family.
Now I know that this wound I bear is becoming like Christ’s wounds: welling up with God’s love so that everyone – my mother, father, all my siblings, and the generations before and after us – may be drawn to Him. – A