There’s nothing easy about the decision to abort, or the process required to complete it. Those challenges are only made more difficult by the societal taboos that silence and shame the process.
I worked with a couple who were choosing to terminate a pregnancy, and we held a series of rituals to help everyone involved get through it with as much love and grace as possible.
Our goal with these rituals was not only to change the experience for this child, this couple, and those who care about and support them, but also to help build new healing patterns in the cultural field around this experience.
Our first healing ritual: saying hello
At our first meeting, the mom and I talked a lot about what was happening, spiritually and energetically speaking, for this spirit who has begun the journey into this world, and for those here who would welcome it.
I see the journeys of birth and death as voyages across a great sacred river, between the Village of the Living, and the Village of the Ancestors (which is also the Village of the Not-Yet-Born). In my imagination, there is a great wheel superimposed over the river, overlapping on each shore.
Each of us travel around the wheel: at birth, we enter this world, and at death we return to the other one. The Wheel of Life holds and guides both those transitions.
My work is usually about helping people travel from this shore to the other, but in the case of pregnancy loss, the soul has not fully made its way here yet. There’s a kind of compression of the wheel, and coming in and going out overlap with each. It can be painful and confusing, and healing requires unwinding the two processes, so each can have the attention it deserves.
Before this little baby’s parents and community were able to say goodbye to him, they needed to fully say hello. The first step in this process was to give him a name. Mom was very clear that the tiny being inside her was a boy, and so they named him: Gabriel Daniel.
Naming is powerful, it made Gabriel real, and it located him in a family lineage and a community.
After naming him, we did a powerful ritual to let Gabriel know that his people on this side of the river saw him, that they love him, and that they claimed him as one of their own. And we let him know, with great tenderness, that he was not going to be able to finish his journey to this shore.
The image we held for Gabriel was of a lighthouse, flashing a loving message to him in his canoe out in the water, letting him know that he should prepare to turn around, that he was not going to be able to land here. We told him the date for which abortion had been scheduled, and that if he wanted to turn around on his own, he could do so before then. Otherwise, his parents would go ahead with the procedure, bringing as much beauty and love to it as they could.
I believe that each soul that comes into this world does so with an idea of what it wants to learn or experience. Some of us have big tasks, and it can take us decades to fulfil the goals we set for this lifetime. Others need only a very short time to receive what this world has to offer us, or to give what we’ve come to deliver. Once we’ve completed our tasks, we can circle back over to the far shore again.
We can never know if Gabriel crossed the river knowing that this would be his destiny. What we did know was that his time here would be short. At this first ritual, Gabriel’s parents let him know that they were committed to giving him the fullest experience of love that they could in the next few days. If he had anything he wanted to experience before he went back, now was the time for it, and his mother and father would do their best to support him.
Just as Gabriel’s time here was short, so was his mom’s time being pregnant. Because mothers in this situation are rarely able to publicly claim their pregnancy experience, Gabriel’s mom wanted to be fully pregnant for the days that she carried Gabriel within her. This included going to a pre-natal yoga class, walking mindfully by the river, and really connecting to, and loving this tiny spirit, knowing that their time together would be short.
Our second healing ritual: beginning the goodbye
After ritually welcoming Gabriel to this side of the river, we set another ritual for the end of the week, two days before the scheduled abortion. The second ceremony involved Mom, Dad, Gabriel, and a friend who supported all of them.
At the second ceremony, we ritually shifted the energetic pattern from welcoming and loving Gabriel while he was here, to helping him start his journey back across the river, and grieving his leaving. We asked Gabriel to pull his energy out of the physical form in which it was beginning to coalesce, and to turn his attention back to those on the far shore, letting him know that he’d be leaving us and joining them there soon.
With this loving intention, our hope was that his spirit was aware of, and able to prepare for, what would happen during the abortion.
Those familiar with Systemic Family Constellations will understand the problems caused when a member of the family is excluded from for any reason. That person (alive or dead) suffers, the family suffers, and all manner of compensating issues can manifest as the system tries to address the void left in the Family Soul.
One of the goals of the first ritual was to establish that Gabriel existed, that he belonged in this lineage, and to these people. He continues to exist precisely because he belongs: existence is conferred when membership in the family and the tribe is ritually acknowledged. (Consider the implications of shunning, and this relationship becomes vividly apparent.)
Gabriel needed to exist for his own sake, but also for the sake of his parents and his community. If he wasn’t granted existence, if he, and the few weeks that he was here weren’t recognized as a “something”, then it would be almost impossible for his parents, to find a healing path through this experience.
How could Gabriel’s entry into and exit from this world be properly ritually tended if it wasn’t recognized as existing?
How could his grieving parents honour the intensity of their emotions, if what they’d lost wasn’t acknowledged as valid and meaningful?
Gabriel’s canoe left the far shore –the Village of the Ancestors and the Not-Yet-Born– at his conception, and had been slowly making its way towards this side of the river. The purpose of the second ritual was to catch the canoe, to turn it carefully around, and with a great heave of grief energy, to propel it back to the far shore.
That’s exactly what we did: Mom, Dad, Gabriel, and a supportive “Auntie” gathered in my living room, and we spent the better part of an afternoon making the prayers and ritual actions needed to send Gabriel back to those who were waiting for him.
We held to those tasks quite literally. The catching of the canoe needed prayers of welcome, praise, and completion. With offerings and eloquence, Gabriel’s parents and his Auntie (representing his community) let him know how much they cared about him, and how valuable his short life was.
The turning of the canoe needed prayers for a nuanced configuration of separation and release, along with connection and memory. If they were to find peace with this process, those on this side of the river needed to come into right relationship with Gabriel: at one level, they need to fully let him go, and at another, they needed to make a space in their hearts where they would carry him forever.
This simultaneous letting go and holding on is the crux point in any death, and these beautiful young people did it with a grace and wisdom far beyond their years.
With the prayers said, and the offerings made, and with no shortage of tears, Gabriel’s parents let him know that his journey towards the Village of the Living was coming to an end.
Healing the Village
A note here about Village, because in this tiny but magnificent drama, you, Dear Reader, may indeed have been a member of Gabriel’s village. With his parent’s permission, I posted Gabriel’s story to Facebook in two parts. When I posted the first part, after the first ritual, we were all amazed at the beauty and intensity of the responses that flooded in. His story resonated with many, many people.
It became clear that part of Gabriel’s role in his short life was to be a catalyst for healing around the trauma of abortion, a trauma that affects so many women and men. In this way, Gabriel’s life, and his death, had a social meaning, as well as a familial one. He mattered. And you are reading this now, and so he still matters. Gabriel matters because his community lovingly received the gift of who he was and is.
Gabriel’s story created a healing channel for some of silence, shame, and unacknowledged grief surrounding abortion to be released.
Not only was this family’s sharing of their experience a gift to the world, but the incredible outpouring of warmth in the responses has been a profound gift back to them. Isaak Dinesen says that all sorrow can be born if only we can find the right story in which to hold it. For this family, part of what made the pain of this bearable was knowing that their sorrow brought some balm to the pain of others.
Back to the ritual: launching the canoe
With Gabriel’s canoe turned, and with declarations of good-bye from those of us on this side of the river, we turned to his village. We made prayers for all those in his community who had been touched by abortion; for the people that his parents and Auntie knew about, and for those who kept their abortions a secret.
We offered prayers of gratitude to those who have fought so hard to make abortion safe and legal, and we asked that the time come soon where all women who need access to these services can do so in safety and dignity.
We carried our prayer bundle outside to the fire pit, and built a hot, beautiful fire. This was the moment of launching Gabriel’s canoe, of emotionally, spiritually and ritually setting him off on his journey back across the river. We called out, by name, to the ancestors who would be waiting for him on the far shore. We prayed that his voyage be blessed. And we laid the bundle on the fire.
Then we turned and, with our backs to the fire, we listened while the offering was received by the hungry fire spirits, and conveyed on to the healing powers for whom it was intended.
When the flames died down, we covered the fire, and returned to the house. With bright eyes and soft faces, Gabriel’s parents told me they felt light, joyful, blessed, and ready. They would go to the clinic knowing they had done this with dignity and love. And they could already tell that they, and Gabriel, and everyone involved were going to be just fine.
The three young people left my house to go out for a meal, and later that evening I got a message saying that they’d felt surrounded by a bubble of love all night.