Hallmark, commercials, social media posts … They all paint a lovely picture of the holidays complete with family togetherness, joy, and fun. But what if the thought of all that family time makes you anxious and depressed? What if you’re grieving – whether or not those around you know? How can you navigate the holidays and the potential questions and comments from friends and family members?

Abortion experiences can compound these challenges. Maybe you’re thinking, “I haven’t experienced or been impacted by abortion and, over the holidays, I don’t think I’ll be around anyone who has either, so this isn’t for me.” The thing about reproductive experiences is that often people don’t talk about them. Since by the age of 45, 1 in 4 women experience abortion and 1 in 5 men experience it through a partner’s termination – and the ripple of those experiences can affect their parents, siblings, and others – it’s very likely that someone in your circle of friends and family has been touched by abortion.

Beyond abortion, other pregnancy experiences may make the holidays challenging for us and those we know, such as miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, infant death, adoption placement, separation, etc. These holiday-survival tips can also apply to many stressors other than reproductive issues – job loss, divorce or break-up, illnesses or health challenges, death of a loved one, relocation, etc. For those grappling with loss or grief, this festive time can become an emotional minefield, making it a challenging time to navigate.

So, let’s talk about why the holidays may be extra stressful for those struggling with their emotions after abortion. Let’s identify some signs that we may be depleted or overstressed. Let’s look at the importance of setting boundaries for our own self-care. And let’s explore ways in which we can provide meaningful support for friends and family.

WHY THE HOLIDAYS MAY BE EXTRA CHALLENGING AFTER ABORTION

The American Psychological Association reports that almost 4 in 10 people suffer increased stress during the holiday season, which can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse.

For those coping with grief or loss, the backdrop of festive decorations, cheerful music, traditions, and expectations of joyful celebrations can amplify negative feelings such as sadness, loneliness, and depression. While people’s experiences and reactions to abortion can vary widely, and not everyone will feel the same way, experiencing abortion can be a complex and emotionally challenging process for many individuals, and the holiday season can exacerbate their emotions.

Here are a few reasons why the holidays may be extra challenging after abortion:

    • Emotional Strain: Abortion can evoke a range of emotions, including sadness, guilt, relief, and grief. The holiday season, often associated with joy and celebration, can intensify these emotions and make it more difficult for individuals to cope. The holidays can also serve as reminders of what might be perceived as a loss.
      • A client shared, I try to give myself grace and remember how scared I was at the time, but the holidays are really hard. I cried all day yesterday. I’m struggling with overwhelming regret, depression, and anxiety because of my abortion.
      • Another said, “I don’t necessarily regret my decision because I’m so young and have no resources to take care of a baby, but I feel sad. Last year at Christmas with my family I realized it would’ve looked so different with a three month old on my lap. This year, I’ll be thinking my baby would be a year old. And now my sister’s pregnant.”
    • Social Expectations: During the holidays, there is often pressure to be festive and socialize with family and friends. This can be challenging for someone who has experienced abortion. They may not feel like being around others, especially pregnant women or babies.
      • One client shared, “I had an abortion when I was 18 years old. My mind is still full of what-ifs and I still cry. But it’s not like anyone else knows or would understand. Christmas is coming, and I don’t know how I’m going to handle being around my pregnant sister, or how I can cope in the future watching her baby grow up. I think of my baby every day and feel so guilty. It really hurts.”
      • Another client said, “Emotions about my abortion come up all of a sudden when I see babies, pregnant women, and happy families. The holidays are coming, and I know it’s going to be so hard.”
      • One man in our research study shared that for over 40 years his partner’s abortion “always remains on my mind” when he’s around babies in his family.
    • Questions: They may worry about being asked questions about personal matters, plans for the future, or family size. These conversations can be particularly sensitive for someone who has experienced abortion or reproductive issues, as they may not want to share their struggles or discuss their feelings with others.
      • One client shared, “My family always asks when we’re going to have kids. They don’t know about my abortion, and I can’t talk to them about it.”
      • I remember the discomfort with these types of questions. I didn’t feel like getting into conversations about how many miscarriages, stillbirths, and years of infertility I’d been going through. So I would deflect and try to change the subject. It was uncomfortable and awkward.
      • Often people use such questions as fallback icebreakers, but it’s really best to avoid them. Consider instead asking questions such as, What are you most looking forward to next year? What made you happiest this year? Have you read any good books recently (or watched any good tv shows or movies)? What did you do in your free time last week? Anything that engages the person and sparks a friendly conversation makes for a good question.

SIGNS YOU MAY BE OVERLY STRESSED

The phrase “your cup is empty” is often used to suggest that a person may be emotionally or mentally overwhelmed. Some signs to be aware of include increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation or interest in things you used to enjoy, feeling anxious or on edge, decreased empathy for others, avoiding others, forgetfulness, negative thought patterns, procrastination, increased sensitivity to criticism or stressors, over-eating or excessive drinking, loss of appetite, change in sleep patterns, and physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, and muscle tension. Clients often describe these types of symptoms. For example:

“Since the abortion, I don’t do anything. I quit college. I’m just devastated. I thought it was the best decision for both of us at the time. I feel so broken.”

“I’m dealing with a lot of grief and guilt since my abortion. I’m struggling trying to find motivation to do my regular activities. It’s been hard. I feel severely depressed and find it hard to eat anything.”

“I’m at the breaking point. I’m always angry or really sad. I cry a lot. It’s affecting my work and now I’m on forced leave.”

“After the abortion, I fell into a depression of what if’s and spiraling thoughts. Honestly, I’m just shut down socially until I feel somewhat capable. I just feel numb.”

I struggled for 15 years with alcohol and drug abuse, acting out, poor decisions, and destruction after encouraging my girlfriend to have an abortion.

My girlfriend had an abortion 10 years ago. Soon after I started using marijuana to cope with my emotions, anger, grief, anxiety and depression.

I’m struggling emotionally from an abortion 12 years ago. Recently I lost my job, we moved, and it all hit me…the abortion…all the memories and emotions of it…and I keep replaying it. I can’t sleep. I feel regret. I’m in therapy, but she’s just focusing on why I can’t focus.

It’s easy to see how someone struggling to cope in these ways could find the holidays an extra strain and challenge to handle. Some ways to help navigate the holidays in a healthy way involve practicing self-care, setting boundaries, and seeking support from friends or professionals.

HOW TO SET BOUNDARIES FOR SELF-CARE TO GET THROUGH THE HOLIDAYS

Setting boundaries means establishing clear and healthy limits on what behaviors, actions, or treatment you are willing to accept from others, as well as what you are comfortable with in various situations. These limits can be physical, emotional, or situation-specific. They deal with personal relationships, work, and social interactions.

Boundaries protect your well-being while nurturing healthy relationships. They are a way to care for and safeguard your physical, mental, and emotional self in ways that you decide are in your own best interests.

Making time for self-reflection, accepting how you’re feeling, setting boundaries for social commitments, and prioritizing self-care are crucial to managing stress and maintaining a healthier emotional state. These are particularly essential through the holidays, especially for those who are coping with grief or loss. Give yourself permission to set boundaries – for yourself, with people who know what you’re going through, and with people who don’t know.

PRACTICAL TIPS FOR SETTING BOUNDARIES THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

Reflect on Your Priorities

Identify what is most important to you during the holiday season. This could be spending quality time with loved ones, taking time for yourself, or maintaining certain routines or traditions. If you really want to celebrate, but just don’t feel like doing all that you usually do, consider simplifying. Identify the traditions or activities that are most important to you, consider making a schedule for what you will do, and politely decline the things that don’t fit your needs this year.

Choose Your Events and Activities & Learn to be Comfortable Saying No

Assess your emotional capacity and choose social engagements wisely. It’s okay to decline invitations or requests that make you feel uncomfortable, stressed, or overwhelmed. If you know certain places or people will push your buttons or trigger your emotions, it’s okay to choose to not participate. Saying no is not a sign of weakness; it’s a way to protect your mental and emotional well-being. If you feel anxious or depressed just thinking about attending a certain event, choose your health and politely decline. And if you think it’s best for you this year, know that it’s okay to choose not to celebrate at all. Instead of doing what you think you should, do what you know will be healthiest for you – whether that’s listening to your favorite music, binge watching your favorite show, or going for a hike. Others may not understand, but it’s important to your own healing journey to do what you need for your own mental health.

Plan ahead

Take time to think about how you want to be treated and what you do or don’t want to talk about. Rehearse responses to comments or questions you think you might encounter. If you know Aunt Millie always asks when you’re going to start dating, or get married, or have a baby, be ready. Prepare topics you are comfortable talking about. When someone tries to discuss something you don’t want to, you can say “let’s talk about ____ instead.” Or, you can simply ignore their remark or question, and ask one of your own that would lead to a conversation you would welcome. If that doesn’t work, you may choose to turn to someone else or walk away. Just because someone wants to talk about a certain topic, doesn’t mean you have to cooperate. Allow yourself to be in control of what you discuss.

Make an Exit Plan

Make an exit plan for conversations and events so you can remove yourself or leave early. Give yourself permission to do what you need. Remember you have control over where you go and what you talk about. If a particular question or conversation makes you uncomfortable, you can ignore it, walk away, and/or say “I prefer not to talk about it.” This can be especially important if no one knows what you’re going through, or if they choose not to respect the boundaries you have communicated. It can also be helpful to have a trusted friend or family member act as a buffer. You can work out a signal ahead of time so they know when you want their help. Then they can interrupt the conversation, guide you away, or even say it’s time to go and help you leave.

Communicate Your Needs

If the people you will be around know about your situation (abortion experience, job loss, reproductive issues, divorce, etc.), clearly communicate your boundaries ahead of time. Often people want to help, but don’t know what to do or say. Consider letting your loved ones know how they can support you – whether that’s helping you decorate the tree, shop, go for a walk, acting as a buffer with others, or respecting your need to spend time alone. Let them know your priorities and any limitations you have. That could include if and how you want them to acknowledge your grief or loss and what you do or don’t want to discuss. Be honest about what you can and cannot do. For example, you may consider letting the host know ahead of time that you may not be able to stay for the whole event, if that won’t lead to uncomfortable conversation. That way if you do opt to leave early, you can just go without feeling a need to explain in the moment. Open communication helps manage expectations and fosters understanding.

Prioritize Self-Care

Schedule time for activities that bring you comfort and peace. Whether it’s reading, listening to music, engaging in a hobby, or taking a quiet walk, make time for activities that help you relax and recharge you physically and/or emotionally. Avoid numbing or pushing down feelings by using alcohol or other substances, which can worsen anxiety and depression.

Once you’ve taken the time and decided on your boundaries, standing your ground and reinforcing your boundaries is essential – regardless of the other person’s feelings or opinions. Remember, self-care is not selfish; it’s necessary for maintaining your mental and emotional health. By setting boundaries, you can enjoy the holiday season while taking care of yourself.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP OTHERS HAVE A MORE PEACEFUL, RELAXING, AND WELCOMING HOLIDAY SEASON

You may not know what others are going through right now. Here are some suggestions that we can all follow that will have the benefit of helping others have a more peaceful, relaxing, and welcoming holiday season: be kind in your words and actions, be mindful of others’ feelings and accept that they may not be up for celebrating the holidays as usual or how you may prefer, be flexible and extend grace if someone says they aren’t able to attend or need to leave early, create a warm and welcoming environment, encourage self-care, offer support, be a good listener, and respect boundaries others set. Even small gestures can have a big impact on others’ well-being during the holidays. The key is to be thoughtful, considerate, and open to creating a positive and caring atmosphere.

HOW TO NAVIGATE THE HOLIDAYS WITH SOMEONE WHO IS COPING WITH GRIEF OR LOSS

If you have a friend or family member navigating grief or loss during the holidays, your support can make a significant difference. These suggestions assume that the person has shared their abortion experience(s) or other situation(s) with you directly. If that is not the case – if you learned about what they’re going through from someone else, it is probably best to support them with compassion, but without speaking to them about the situation unless and until they bring it up with you.

Here are ways to help:

  • Acknowledge what they’re going through and let them know that it’s okay for them to feel whatever emotions they are feeling.
  • Ask how they want to approach the holidays.
  • Be flexible and supportive. Understand that their emotions may vary, and they may not be up for participating in all the usual holiday festivities.
  • Be a safe, non-judgmental space for them to express their feelings.
  • Be a good listener. Let them share their thoughts and feelings without feeling the need to offer solutions.
  • Respect their need for alone time.
  • Avoid making assumptions about how they should feel or behave or for how long.
  • Offer ongoing support. Grieving doesn’t have a set timeline, and the holiday season can be especially challenging. Continue to offer support beyond the immediate holiday period.
  • Encourage them to seek support, especially if their grief is overwhelming and persistent. You can refer them to Support After Abortion and we can connect them to the type of help they prefer.
  • Respect their boundaries. Understand that they may need to set boundaries for self-care. Respect their decisions and avoid pressuring them into activities they are not comfortable with.

Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have all the answers. Your role is to provide caring support and understanding. Simply being there for the person and acknowledging their feelings can make a huge impact. As one client recently said to us, “Thank you for making me feel like I matter.”

CONCLUSION

Navigating heavy emotions, grief, or loss during the holidays is a complex and individual journey. Understanding the unique challenges posed by the festive season, recognizing signs of emotional distress, setting boundaries for self-care, and offering compassionate support to friends and family are essential aspects of this process. By fostering open communication, empathy, and understanding, we can create a more supportive environment for those who find this season challenging. As we approach the holidays, let’s remember that kindness, compassion, and connection can be powerful tools in helping others and ourselves through the journey of grief.

GET SUPPORT

“It is important and healthy to ask for help,” said clinical psychologist Angelica Attard in Positive Psychology, to have someone “work with you to start to talk about your emotions, make sense of your experiences, and learn more effective coping strategies to manage your emotions.

Abortion healing is the process of working through your emotions, grieving, sharing your story, and restoring well-being. No one should have to walk through this alone. Let us be there for you. You deserve a safe space of compassion, caring, and access to healing.

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. Check out our website for information, videos, self-guided healing, and more for women and men.

DO YOU – OR WOULD YOU LIKE TO – PROVIDE AFTER-ABORTION SUPPORT?

Explore our Provider Training Center and attend our free monthly Abortion Healing Provider webinars.

Take a deeper-dive into stress responses with our How to Better Handle Stress – a Great Holiday Prep webinar that will be held 12-1p ET on Wednesday, December 20th. Register here!

About Support After Abortion

Support After Abortion is a nonprofit dedicated to helping women and men impacted after abortion by (1) connecting them with healing options they prefer, and (2) equipping providers with curriculum, resources, and trainings. Support After Abortion’s free resources include an After Abortion Help Line, a National Abortion Healing Provider Directory, and an introductory abortion healing program.

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.