Tuesday Guest Post: “The Art of Loss Through the Lens of Labor, Epidurals and Abortions”

Every Tuesday we will be featuring a guest post related to abortion support, reproductive justice, and other topics relevant to our mission as an organization dedicated to providing nonjudgmental, compassionate and empowering full-spectrum doula services. If you are interested in writing a post for our Tuesday series, email Kelly N. 

This week’s post comes from BADP volunteer Kelly Gray. Kelly is a mother, full spectrum doula, childbirth educator and one of the founders of the Bay Area Doula Project. She grew up as a union organizer for public sector healthcare workers and has a passion for redefining healthcare access, models and justice. When she’s not helping women take charge of their reproductive lives, she’s guiding her fiery daughter to harness her innate powers.  You can read more about her childbirth education classes or doula work at



As a doula, I am sensitive to patterns. The quick inhale of breath of a woman whose body is losing its definition within her contraction. Shoulders easing as I whisper in her ear, and then picking back up again as the contraction rolls through her. I don’t need to watch the clock; the sixty-second contraction is something that is now as evident to me as morning sunlight. And then contractions double, as her baby starts to slide past her cervix, she speaks of rectal pressure and doubt. Or she is quiet, trance-like, but I see the bloody show on her warm thighs, dribbling down to her cool ankles. The blood is leaving her limbs, rushing towards her belly. A red line forms at her bottom’s part, rising up like a flag planted on a new land, motherhood claimed by body. A contraction, a climax of emotions and physical intensity, a micro-reflection of the larger play at hand; labor.

When a woman opts for an epidural, a reasonable request in the hospital where a woman is expected to labor with constant interruptions and lack of trust (which all raises her adrenaline and depletes her production of endorphins and oxytocin) I see the pattern of labor halted by medication. Or so it seems, superficially. Often, after the epidural has taken effect, the woman is restless, and her eyes dart around the room as she is encouraged to sleep. A rush of emotion slides beneath the surface of her skin. Meanwhile, her baby continues on his or her path and her body continues to part. She quivers and is told by the nurse that this is a side effect of the drug. Perhaps. I find this moment in the birth one of the most interesting emotional bridges that a woman must cross, and often there is no map, guide or intended destination. When a woman is committed to natural birth, or has no intention other than having her baby with the intention of collaborating with her medical team, often the sudden turn of events that lead to an epidural can leave women with the intense need to grieve what was not meant to be. Often, they do not know what it is they have lost. For some, like me, I have dedicated my life to finding out and helping woman define this moment for herself.

The nurse says, “The baby is ok, and that’s what matters.” The implication is that as long as the baby is ok then the woman’s experience is negated. (Dear reproductive rights activists, does this not sound familiar?)

As a doula, I move in. This might be a time to grieve. One must pay respect to what was lost. How do you grieve what is lost when you’ve never experienced it? It is a tricky road to be on with the laboring woman, but if handled with open ears and radical compassion women can satiate their need to be heard as well as go on to have a positive birth experience. As doulas, we know that the birth experience rests on being heard and held. As doulas, we create ritual and tradition where there is none.

Consider the loss of one’s desire to naturally birth their child compared with a woman’s sense of loss who suddenly realizes that her reproductive path now entails abortion and/or death. With abortion, women often don’t have a chance to grieve their loss due to stigma, lack of community, or fear of persecution. On a deeper level, we lack appropriate grieving structures around pregnancy loss because abortion is not seen as a powerful transition in a woman’s life. We often think of pregnancies that end with abortion not as pregnancies at all. Rather, we “have abortions preformed on us” and very little is done to make it feel as if it is something that the woman has any choice in how, when or where it is performed, or who is present. We lack rituals and traditions around abortion and this is a huge disservice to women and all the reproductive journeys that will follow. Motherhood seems reserved for those who have live births, even though choosing an abortion can often be a dignified and important step in motherhood or womanhood.

I was 18 when I had my first abortion. For a week and to my surprise, I intended to keep my baby. Previously, I had never wanted children but I suddenly found my hand resting on my tummy, I took pride in my full breasts, and I looked keenly at young children while smelling their hair as they sat in my lap. I convinced myself that I was glowing. In time, about seven days to be exact, it became clear that my partner did not share my thoughts. My parents assumed I was calling Planned Parenthood, and when I hesitated they made an appointment for me at a private clinic. The doctor said, “You need to make a decision that will allow you to look into your own eyes, day after day.” I knew instantly that the ethical, responsible thing to do, as a pregnant mother, was to abort my pregnancy.

I was numb below my waist on the table. I felt tugging, pressure, and I felt that I was growing with the death between my legs. I was feeling relief, and a political and woman-hood muscle flexed within me. I felt distinctly woman. I was alone, aside from the medical staff. The nurse gently touched my face. I was acting in my child’s best interest and I was positive that I was exactly where I should be.

And yet, when I returned home, my pet fish had died. My only other living charge: dead. I doubled over, and the grief took hold. I was not sure what I was grieving at that moment. I knew nothing about the after abortion landscape, not on a physiological level or an emotional level. My partner stood by silently, and I could hear my parents breathing sighs of relief 40 miles away. And the only thing that had ever made me feel not alone was gone. In my circles, grief was not an option. Not for someone like me.

And even if I could have grieved, as an 18-year-old child, how could I have defined that grief? What was it exactly, or who, that I had lost? Was it a part of me, a soul defined, an expression of body and hormones that I craved? Had I lost my partner, my fantasy life, a family of my own making? I had no guide. I had no direction. I just doubled over, triggered by my dead fish in the murky fish bowl, and the distinct taste of tragic irony in my mouth.

Is defining grief valuable? I can’t answer that question unequivocally for every woman. But I do see pregnant women who have struggled with motherhood loss, by way of abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth, take a great breath and hold it tightly until their child is born. Unable to define their grief, it haunts them from the inside out. When they find themselves in the birth room, they still have not connected to the life within them. Their bones are stiff, their muscles rigid, their hips do not rise and fall. For some, I believe this is because they have not connected to the death behind them.

I must say, I am extremely pro-choice and have always worked to increase access to abortions and appropriate resources. But for some women, abortion is death. I find that is difficult to stomach for many feminists and reproductive activists. Let’s not make it more complicated then it already is! We have been pushed into the corner by the right wing politicians and have gone down fighting about how and when to define the beginning of life.

Science will be of no use to those of us who know, who have felt and heard the child within us. As women, we are uniquely equipped to carry life, to lose life, to terminate life, and to birth life. This is the power of womanhood and this is why it is so important that we have additional tools to help us define our grief and joy around each of these powers.

For me, what I grieved that day 17 years ago was the loss of my own apathy. How easy it had recently been for me to live as a child, a product of my family’s dysfunction, a victim of abuse and neglect. I had created a life that did not have me at the center. Nothing is more grounding than a pregnancy, except for beginning to think about what it means to be so powerful and so alive and so wanting to feel myself that I would terminate it. So I grieved my childhood, now officially over, as I moved into womanhood. In a way, it was my own birthing pains into empowered womanhood.

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