Helping Men Heal From Abortion

Kevin Burke on New Program of Rachel’s Vineyard

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BRIDGEPORT, Pennsylvania, AUG. 19, 2004 ( Both women and men suffer when they decide to abort a child, says a social worker who deals in post-abortive counseling.

Kevin Burke, who directs Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries with his wife, Theresa, shared with ZENIT how men grieve the loss of their child, and how their healing helps post-abortive women mend their wounds, too.

Q: Why did Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries decide to start reaching out to men, in addition to its service to women?

Burke: It began when we had the first few men attended our weekend retreats with women. We saw how effective the retreat was for women, so we were curious to see how the process would work with men involved.

The results were very encouraging and exciting. The men entered deeply into the healing process, grieved as intensely for their children as the women in the group and received similar benefits from the experience.

An unexpected benefit for the women in these groups was that the presence of men grieving deeply for their children added another level of healing. Many women experience their abortion in isolation and often after being used, manipulated and abandoned by a man.

To see a man repentant and openly grieving his child, acknowledging his failures and loss, and embracing the mercy and forgiveness of Christ — this is an added blessing and healing element of the retreat all participants.

There is a gradual but steady increase in the number of men attending the over 300 Rachel’s Vineyard retreats held across the United States and internationally. We now have a men’s section on our Web site with e-mail support from men who experienced healing of their involvement with an abortion and want to reach out to other men.

Q: What issues do men who have been involved with an abortion typically face during post-abortion healing?

Burke: Men struggle with many of the symptoms of complicated grief as women do.

In an L.A. Times survey of 3,600 men, 66% reported guilt and anxiety after their involvement with an abortion; other research indicates that men do indeed struggle with feelings of guilt, depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and anger after an abortion.

Perhaps men are better equipped to stuff these feelings, or compartmentalize their grief, but this has its emotional and relational cost.

Like women, unless they connect their pain and their symptoms to the complicated grief around the abortion wound, they are destined to continue to act out that pain in their lives — often with destructive consequences for their spousal, family and work relationships. Many men are in deep but often quiet pain about their involvement in an abortion decision.

It is important to look at their role as men in the abortion decision. For those who communicated ambivalence, manipulated or pressured for abortion, or in other ways abandoned the mother and child during this time of vulnerability and fear, a major issue is their failure as men to fulfill a fundamental aspect of their vocation — the protection and care of mother and child.

When the reality of their actions is clear, when it breaks through their workaholism, pornography addiction, extramarital affairs, depression, alcohol abuse and other ways they stuff down the pain, it is a very painful moment — but it is the beginning of healing and reconciliation.

They come to the full realization of what was lost and they face the deep grief of losing their precious child. This is when they need the support of other persons who understand their pain, and the reconciliation and healing of the Church.

Particularly important is a healing process like Rachel’s Vineyard that will allow them to enter deeply but safely into that grief and open their hearts to receive God’s healing, and with faith embrace the unborn child that, as the Pope says in “Evangelium Vitae,” now is “living in the Lord.”

For those men who fight for the life of their child, encourage the mother to have the baby and offer real emotional and financial support, abortion can be particularly devastating. The sense of powerlessness can lead to anger, depression and other elements of complicated grief.

In these cases the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat process gives voice to this pain and provides the opportunity for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace that these men so desperately need.

Q: What conflicts often arise between a man and a woman before and after they have been involved in an abortion?

Burke: Most relationships end at some point after the abortion. Some continue with dysfunctional dynamics between the couple that can serve as an unconscious way to self-punish and even in a certain sense as a memorial of the aborted child.

There is another factor that is widely underreported, but is extremely important. Many young couples abort in their engagement period or early marital life, feeling they are not emotionally or financially ready to have a child. This puts a dagger into the heart of the relationship — abortion, though touted as an autonomous issue of choice, takes place within the context of their deepest emotional and physical intimacy. Abortion is very much a relational wound.

When death is introduced into that place of their deepest intimacy, its effects seep into and corrupt their trust, sexual intimacy and communication. Often the marital problems a couple faces are not tied into secret and complicated grief from an abortion decision. But it is a factor in marital dysfunction and divorce.

We know this from the stories of those who come forward for healing; many of these can be found in a book my wife, Theresa, wrote, “Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion.”

For those who are able to attend a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat together, the marriage can be saved and the original design of God for that marriage restored with an increase in communication and emotional and physical intimacy.

It is beautiful to see couples journey together on the Rachel’s Vineyard retreat; we are seeing more and more of them attend. At other times, one person seeks healing first, and the good effects eventually lead the other spouse to participate in some way in future healing opportunities.

Q: What help do you offer a man who had nothing to do with an abortion, but is in a relationship with a woman who had an abortion before they met?

Burke: This is very important because many men can be confused by their wife’s growing depression or dissatisfaction in their marriage.

They do not connect their spouse’s behavior — which can feel like rejection of them physically and emotionally — with post-abortion grief, and marriages end without any opportunity to find healing of both the abortion and the marriage.

We strongly encourage men in these cases to accompany their wives on the Rachel’s Vineyard weekend. The effects are so amazing. Having her spouse support her during this time of anguish, and in their encounter with the Lord Jesus, the joy of reconciliation and re-connection with the child through the retreat process and the sacraments is very healing in the marriage.

Men are invited to spiritually adopt their wife’s child during the memorial service. This is a very moving and healing experience.

Also, men should read “Forbidden Grief” to help them better understand their wife’s pain.

Q: How can men — husbands, boyfriends, brothers, fathers, grandfathers — understand and help women to heal from an abortion?

Burke: Don’t minimize the pain they have experienced — support them in their need to find healing and reconciliation. And don’t be threatened by this healing; it will be a great blessing to your marriage and children.

If you encouraged your daughter or wife to abort, her grief and pain
can feel threatening to you, given your involvement in the abortion decision. It is so important to not further exacerbate her symptoms and pain by blocking or sabotaging her attempts to find healing.

You may need counsel and support to do this — contact us or another healing resource to assist you.

Accompany them — if they are willing — on their Rachel’s Vineyard retreat weekend or participate with them in whatever healing process they are involved in. Grandparents, fathers and husbands do beautifully on the retreat and are an important part of the healing of family relationships that can be damaged by abortion. Be patient, loving, supportive and kind.

Men can refer post-abortive women to our Web site so they can e-mail other women and couples who will understand their pain. Also, women can call our hot line at (877) HOPE-4-ME or (610) 354-0555.

About a third of the 300 Rachel’s Vineyard retreats offered this year are hosted by Respect Life/Project Rachel or Pro-Life offices; they will have counselors to assist you and other support as well. Others are sponsored by parish, pro-life or independent ministries and a growing number are offered in an interdenominational format and setting. Be assured that all our sites welcome persons of all denominations.

In a larger context as men, they must take responsibility and repent of the ways they have failed women.

Any time they are sexually intimate with a woman outside of the security and safety of the marital covenant, any time they say to their fiancée or spouse, “We might not be ready for this baby — maybe we should think about abortion” or “It’s your decision, I’ll support whatever you do,” they place her and any child conceived at grave risk.

As fathers of aborted children, like the courageous women who pioneered abortion healing, they must come forward and face their grief, their loss and embrace the mercy and healing that awaits a repentant and wounded heart.

Then they can be free to be the men that the Lord calls them to be: to protect, defend and empower those the Lord entrusts to their care; to give their life for them, as Christ gave his life for us all.

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