Where Loss is Felt, Grief is Known
By Rev. Aaron Payson
Last spring, I was invited to share my thoughts on grief and reproductive loss as part of a new series developed by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice called Sacred Crossroads. This series involved both blog reflections and webcasts which interviewed an incredible group of advocates for reproductive health, rights and justice and an attempt to shift the conversation in order to begin to reclaim the idea that those of us in the “pro-choice” movement represented a more humane and just form of “pro-life” perspectives.
For me this means that one is “pro-life” when we understand the worth and integrity of the living and the complex and often complicated challenges that the living face. My experience of the “pro-life” movement, as it is popularly experienced, is that it is actually a “pro-birth” movement with little concern for the continuing health and well-being of children and women in our world. The work of women of color who challenged us to consider the inadequacies of the “pro-choice” frame, and who advocate for reproductive justice, has helped clarify for me that the operative ethic in our movement needs to be the desire, life-circumstance, and decision-making authority of women. We must put particular attention and focus on those who have been marginalized by race, sexual orientation, and gender expression, as the focus of any strategies moving forward in the reproductive health, rights and justice movement. What I wrote last April is, in part, my own attempt to broaden the dialogue to make room for a much wider expression and acceptance of the spectrum of human and humane responses to reproductive loss and decision-making.
He did not say: You will not be troubled,
you will not be belabored,
you will not be afflicted;
but he said: You will not be overcome.
~ Mother Julian of Norwich
My calling to ministry began more than 35 years ago, not with dreams of preaching to a full sanctuary but as a first responder working with ambulance companies. This ministry began in high school as a volunteer, and continued as a professional Emergency Medical Technician during college and seminary. The calling I distilled from this vocation was one of trained physical care and compassionate companionship with people during some of the most traumatic times of their lives. Such service encompassed the experience of the entire spectrum of human response to crisis: moments of stress, pain, suffering, anxiety, fear, grief, gladness, humor and, in precious few moments, unbridled joy. As I reflect back, I recognize in each of these experiences expressions of human integrity and sacred moments, moments of awareness and awakening to the larger connections that sustain us and often permeate such critical life experiences.
As a parish minister I have maintained my connection to the first responder community as part of a community crisis response teams that companioned first responders and others through the initial aftermath of traumatic incidents, providing psychological, emotional and spiritual care. These experiences turned into primary lessons for ministry: the art of compassionate presence, the importance of individual integrity, the necessity of trust in others, faith in the human spirit and the spirit that transcends all, the call to create a more just world, the power of the human voice as well as both the strength and fragility of the web of existence which holds us all. But perhaps the most profound lesson from this service is the normalcy and necessity of grief as a basic human response to experiences of profound change, and the importance of recognizing and responding to the reality of grief by those who are grieving and those who support them. And I have carried this learning into all of the areas of my ministry to and with others.
One area of ministry where these lessons have been most profound, and in many ways most challenging, has been with women who face reproductive crises. I have been a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice for more than 17 years. I have served this organization as an affiliate president, and as a member and treasurer of the national Board of Directors. I have also served as an All Options counselor and trainer. All Options Counseling is a mode of spiritual companionship with women who face critical decisions regarding their reproductive capacity, often when the decision whether to carry a pregnancy to term or terminate a pregnancy has reached a point of crisis. It is a form of counseling that places, at its center, the unique circumstances and life reality of the one who faces a crisis and invites the exploration of the spectrum of options available her given such circumstances. It is a form of counseling that recognizes and honors the integrity and inherent moral capacity of women to choose that direction which she deems most responsible. This too is a process that often encompasses the spectrum of human response to crisis.
Often, however, those of us in the reproductive health, rights and justice movement have been so focused on advocating for women’s right to choose, we have neglected to create space for them to grieve. Grief is a normal response to reproductive health decisions, especially as these relate to the decision to terminate a pregnancy. That a woman would decide upon terminating a pregnancy as the most responsible decision given her circumstances does not preclude the reality that grief and sorrow can be, and often is, a normal response. That we in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement have too often ignored this reality simply stigmatizes those who experience this most human response to loss as illegitimate. And for those who oppose this decision, the presence of grief is often identified as a symptom that the decision was both wrong and harmful. Neither position has demonstrated the humane sensitivity that the presence of grief can be constitutive of any experience of human loss. Neglecting this human reality is a spiritual shortcoming and negates our responsibility as caring people to companion those who feel loss on their own terms — not dependent on those dictated by movements in support or opposition to the decision itself. It is our spiritual responsibility to journey with our sisters as they experience life crises and losses.
In his 26th year of ministry in Unitarian Universalism, Rev. Aaron Payson is Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Worcester, MA, where he has served for over 18 years. He has been active in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice since the early 2000s and is engaged in a variety of local rights and justice efforts. He lives in Worcester with his spouse, Kristen Payson, and their children, Morgaine and Charlie.