I work behind the scenes at Support After Abortion. I don’t speak at conferences, facilitate support groups, or work on our After Abortion Line, so my role doesn’t involve conversations with clients or others who are hurting from abortion. Even in my non-work life, speaking directly with someone struggling with strong emotions or challenging circumstances is rare. One of my sisters is a nurse, another works at a homeless shelter, and my mom used to work with refugees, but me? I observe, research, write, and create materials that help others do what they do. Often I think I could never do that. I wouldn’t know what to say. It would probably be uncomfortable. What if I said the wrong thing? If I haven’t experienced XYZ, how would I relate and be able to help someone?

I recently had the privilege both in my personal and professional life to speak to people going through challenging circumstances and experiencing strong emotions. I discovered I’ve absorbed a lot more than I realized from listening to and learning from my amazing colleagues. While I was nervous, and felt ill-equipped in the moment, I was able to navigate those conversations. And just this week one of the individuals I talked to told me that our conversation a few months ago was cathartic and a step in their healing journey. That made me feel so humbled and honored to have been entrusted to listen to someone share their painful lived experience and for that to have actually helped them. 


As I reflected on these conversations, I noticed I said or did things that I had heard my colleagues and guests in our monthly Abortion Healing Provider training webinars talk about. If you’re already a whiz at these types of interactions, maybe something will resonate with you or spark a new idea. And, if you’re like me – a total newbie and more than a little timid about engaging with someone who is suffering, maybe you’ll feel a tad more confident about tiptoeing into these waters to stand alongside someone and offer support.


We have a great resource that offers a simple four-step process to follow when you encounter someone who has been impacted by abortion. The steps are:

  1. Examine your judgment
  2. Walk in compassion
  3. Ask if they would like to share their experience
  4. Connect them with support

That rack card talks about the importance of showing compassion, not judging, and being a safe space for someone. But what does that look like? How can we be a safe space

Maybe you’re like me and think it would be too uncomfortable, too outside your box to talk with someone going through something difficult. But the truth is, at some point all of us will have someone tell us something painful – whether it’s that they lost their job, are going through a divorce or medical crisis, or that they’re struggling after abortion. These 4 Steps can be applied toward any conversation. And the more we practice them, the more they’ll become second nature, and the more ready we’ll be for a conversation that takes us by surprise.


In his book Tell Me More About That, author Rob Volpe lays out five steps to empathy. Just like our first step when encountering someone is Examine Your Judgment, Dismantle Judgment is Volpe’s first step to empathy. “Judgment forms a brick wall that blocks your ability to listen to and understand another person,” he says.  Being judgmental, he explains, is when “you are basing your thoughts on your own values and opinions and negatively applying them to someone else,” which he warns “can cause injury and harm to the other person.” He describes dismantling judgment as “checking in to see if I’m being judgmental, asking myself where that thought is coming from, and putting it aside so that I can connect with the individual or group I’m trying to understand.”

We have opportunities to exercise this skill all the time. When someone shares a decision they’ve made or an activity they’re pursuing or their abortion story, if our first thought is some version of why did you do that or I would never do that or I think you’re wrong, pause. Move that thought aside and make space for that person’s reality. Often our first instinct is to ask why. Volpe cautions in his book that this can put people on the defensive, shut them down, and create a wall that makes communication unlikely, if not impossible. Instead, he suggests checking our judgment and saying Tell me more about that.

Several months ago someone shared with me a life-altering decision they had made. The person said, “I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on this.” Prior to learning these healthier, empathetic ways to communicate while working at Support After Abortion, I probably would have asked why and might have tried to dissuade them or focused on why I disagreed. But I was able to say – and mean it – “You’re right, I don’t agree with your choice, but I want to be a safe space for you. And I appreciate your trusting me and talking with me about this. I know this is difficult for you.” As a result, instead of shutting down and possibly wounding our relationship, we were able to have a respectful, real conversation about their feelings, needs, and how I could support them as a person without supporting their decision.

“Taking my own judgment out of the equation helped me open up to hear what [the person] was saying,” Volpe says. “I was able to really understand their perspective and reach empathy.” He also points out that “Just because I understand someone’s point of view doesn’t mean I have to agree with them.” The key is that “empathy and respect lead to more productive conversations and interpersonal relationships.”


I think part of the scariness about encountering someone who is suffering is thinking that their experience and pain is so different from ours that we don’t know what to say or how to connect. 

“We’re all more alike than we are different,” Support After Abortion CEO and licensed mental health therapist Lisa Rowe frequently says. In fact, our speakers often use a slide like the one below in presentations. 









They talk about how we don’t need to have experienced abortion, or the death of a spouse, or abuse to be able to have empathy for someone who has. We all have something in our lives that has caused us pain, anger, sadness, anxiety, regret, etc. And we can tap into those experiences and emotions when we speak to and support others.


There are many elements that factor into being compassionate when speaking with someone. These are five that I’ve heard our team speak about and that I realized later I had incorporated into conversations.


While you don’t want to make it about you, sharing briefly something relatable can help the other person. In preparation for articles I wrote for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I interviewed three women and five men about how their abortion experiences affect them on these holidays. One of the guys messaged ahead of time asking me not to judge him if he got emotional, then he said “just joking, but not really.” I messaged him back and said absolutely no judgment, we’re all about compassion. And it seemed appropriate to share with him that while I hadn’t experienced abortion, I had miscarriages and stillbirths and had great empathy for those suffering after reproductive loss. I shared that it’s been over 25 years, and sometimes I can speak about it without a problem, other times it’s difficult and emotional, and I never know which me will show up, so I get it. He said my sharing that helped him relax and made him feel like I would be able to understand. It’s a balance. Volpe says, “Don’t overshare, but be willing to open up” so people can understand us and trust us as a safe space to share their own experiences. 


I’ve heard our team speak about holding space. Volpe says, “Put the question out there, see where they go with it. Let them fill in the space. Don’t fill the space with your talk. Mostly listen.” I was thankful to have heard this advice in our webinars because a couple of the men went silent after I asked a question, and I wasn’t sure if they didn’t want to talk about that question and would prefer that I move on. But I just stayed silent, holding the space for them. I wondered as the silence lingered if that made it more awkward for them. But one guy said at the end of our interview that he appreciated my patience when he had to mute to gather his thoughts and calm his emotions. I hadn’t even realized he’d muted himself, I only knew he’d gone quiet. You may have the benefit of visual cues if you’re in person or on Zoom. These were phone interviews, so I just waited and trusted the advice.


One man apologized for swearing. I said don’t worry about it and told him about a support group leader who talked in a webinar about his guy’s group meeting and said it’s important for men to be allowed to speak in whatever way they want to get it out, and if that means swearing, that’s what they need. The interviewee said that was so true because if he had to watch his words, he wouldn’t be able to just speak his real pain. This is true for women as well. A relative was recently telling me about a tough situation and apologized for some choice language. I told her the same story about the webinar and she said the same thing as the interviewee – that to tell her story she needed to not have to police the way she was speaking. This really goes back to “don’t make it about you.” A lot of people swear. Maybe you’re like me and don’t swear or hear it much in your daily life, but when someone’s trusting you with their pain and emotions, focus on their heart and the message they’re sharing with you, not the !#@*&% words they’re using.  


A couple of the interviewees meandered from a question I asked and apologized, saying something like you probably don’t want/need to hear all that. I said, “You can tell your story any way you like, it doesn’t have to be just about Father’s day.” They needed to tell their abortion stories before talking about Father’s Day. I’ve heard our team say that for many people talking about their abortion experiences is freeing. Often they don’t have people in their lives they feel comfortable talking to about it and sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger. Whether it’s a friend, relative, client or stranger opening up to you, let them speak their story in their own way at their own pace.

Similar things happen in our daily lives. You may ask a friend, co-worker, or even a stranger a question and they tell you their mom’s in the hospital or they’re going through a divorce or struggling with a major plumbing problem at home. Take the time to be present to them. Walk in compassion. You can start by saying I’m so sorry you’re going through that. Would you like to talk about it? Then listen and respond with compassion. 

I had this experience early this past spring while walking in a nature park. I live in the south, so it’s very common for strangers to chat, and we started talking about the blooming flowers. I expected a brief, cheerful conversation. She shared that she had moved from up north where it would still be snowing for several more weeks. But when I asked how long she had lived here, she teared up. She shared that she and her husband of over 50 years had moved less than a year ago from the only place they had lived, then he got sick and had just passed away a few weeks before. Wow. That changed our simple chat. I found myself saying I’m so sorry for your loss. Would you like to tell me about him? Then we had a beautiful, connecting conversation. 


Volpe encourages listening for key words people use and mirroring that same language. “It helps build a connection,” he says, “and makes the other person feel more comfortable.” One key example of this in after-abortion conversations is to listen for how they refer to the other person involved in the pregnanc(ies) that ended in abortion(s) – boyfriend, girlfriend, ex, husband, wife, partner, etc. Also listen to how they describe others in their story – for example do they say “mom,” “mother,” or “mama?” Then use their terms when you speak. 

Another important cue to pick up on is religion. When someone is grieving – whether an abortion or another loss – often people want to speak about their own faith to comfort the person. However, it’s important to follow that person’s lead. If someone mentions God or their faith – then you might choose to echo that in what you say. For example, the woman in the park talked about God and her faith. So I knew it would be a safe space for her if I did, too. But if she hadn’t mentioned God, I would not have brought it up. In the same way, if the person you’re talking to shares that they don’t believe in God, respect that and don’t talk about your faith. Or, for example, if they’re Jewish and you’re Christian, don’t talk about Jesus. If you prefer not to talk about faith or don’t believe in God, but they do, you can reflect back what they say, such as I can see how important that is to you. You can also ask about something they’ve mentioned. You might ask if they’ve talked to anyone or found support in their faith community. The bottom line is to keep the focus on them. 


For a person who has shared with you their struggle after abortion, you can say It’s common for people to need to talk more about their abortion experiences, and tell them about Support After Abortion and how we connect people who are hurting after abortion to resources that best fit their preferences. You can share our phone number (844.289.HOPE), website (www.supportafterabortion.com), and/or email (help@supportafterabortion.com).

You can also do this step in non-abortion conversations. The woman I met in the park said she was already attending a grief support group, but she was really missing the camaraderie and connections from her women’s Bible study group where she used to live. She mentioned she isn’t comfortable or knowledgeable about the internet, so I asked her if she would want help with that. She did, so we exchanged email addresses, and when I got home I did some research and sent her options that might fit what she said she wanted. It didn’t matter that we were of different faiths and her desire was a Bible study in her faith. I could help find what she needed. 

I remember a similar, albeit much lighter, connection for someone. A new neighbor moved in and mentioned that her son really missed going fishing, but she had no idea where to take him. I don’t fish, in fact the idea is rather gross to me. But, I know what it feels like to move and to feel lost without the activities you were used to. So I asked friends who do fish for suggestions, and then gave her a list and map of nearby places. They actually went to one the next day and she told me it made her son feel less homesick and more hopeful that their move would be okay.

Whether a person’s grief stems from losing a spouse, a study group, a fishing hole, or experiencing abortion, we can offer support and help connect them to a person or resource that can fill their need.


The power of saying, Thank you for sharing that with me. This can’t be an easy thing for you. can’t be underestimated,” said the hosts of one of our webinars. While I thanked each interviewee for talking with me, I’ll admit that ending the first interview felt really awkward. I’d come to the end of my questions, so normally I’d say thanks and wrap it up pretty easily. But after spending 45 minutes talking and listening to him vulnerably share his story and his pain, I honestly didn’t know what to say after I thanked him. So I just owned it. I repeated what I’d said at the start of our call – that this was my first time talking directly with someone who had experienced abortion who wasn’t connected to Support After Abortion. And I just said, “I really appreciate your talking with me and sharing so much from your heart what you’ve experienced and how you’re hurting from this. I’m so sorry for your loss. I have to admit that it feels really weird that you’ve shared so deeply and now I’m going to say what – bye, have a nice life?” He laughed and said it was a little weird for him, too. But he also said he really appreciated being be able to talk about what he’s gone through. 

I think it helps in closing the conversation to remember what Rowe says about how we’re more alike than we are different and Volpe’s suggestions for treating people with respect and empathy. Let the interaction guide the ending. A sincere Thank you for sharing with me and I’m so sorry for your loss will go a long way.


Sometimes you may need to talk through your own emotions after these types of conversations, while honoring confidentiality by not sharing names or identifiable details. I’ve heard our team members talk about how they support one another when they’re affected by a client’s situation and struggles. It’s part of their healthy self-care, as processing their feelings rather than just pushing through helps prevent burnout and assures they’ll be able to be fully present for the next client. Since this was my first experience hearing someone’s words and raw emotions, I was a bit emotional myself. So I called a team member who has worked with clients for years. I asked her if it gets easier. She said it does, although some people’s experiences are so painful and their grief so profound that it’s good for “helpers” to be able to process their own feelings with someone. I also told her about the awkwardness at the end and asked how she closes calls. It was reassuring for her to say that sometimes after a person’s deep sharing, closing the conversation feels awkward to her, too. Being able to talk through my thoughts and feelings after hearing about someone’s struggles and pain was helpful, and I felt stronger and ready for the next interview. 


The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is struggling with a situation or circumstance – whether they’re hurting after abortion or something else – try the 4 Step Process. Examine your judgment, walk in compassion, ask if they would like to share their experience, and connect them with support. In showing compassion, be vulnerable, hold space, ignore language, take your time, and pick up on their cues. And if you need it, without sharing anything identifiable about the person who trusted you with their story, talk through your own thoughts and emotions with someone. While we may still feel a little nervous about engaging in conversations with people who are grieving or experiencing tough challenges, these steps can help everyone support someone.

If you have experienced or been impacted by abortion and would like to talk with someone, reach out to our After Abortion Line by online chat, phone, text, email or messaging on Facebook or Instagram. We offer free, confidential, compassionate support. We can connect you to the healing resource that best meets your preferences – that may be counseling, support group, virtual, in person, religious, secular, etc.

If you are an abortion healing provider or would like to learn more about providing after-abortion support, explore our Provider Training Center and attend our free monthly Abortion Healing Provider webinars.


About the Author

Michele serves as Communications Manager for Support After Abortion. She and her husband have experienced reproductive loss through three miscarriages and stillborn twins. They live in Greenville, SC with their three daughters.


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