The depression, nightmares and withdrawal from family were just some of the symptoms that made Claudia realize the abortion had damaged her in ways she could not have predicted.

A 22-year-old trying to finish her college coursework, Claudia [full name withheld for privacy reasons] had made the decision to end a pregnancy. She acknowledges that the decision was a result of giving in to pressure — both from people she knew and from secular society.

Claudia says she fell for something that someone else wanted even though it meant being untrue to herself. “I felt very forced to make this decision that I did not want to do. And in our society, they want to say that women get this choice. And, in reality, it’s not their choice.”

Claudia wasn’t able to shake the experience. Raised a Roman Catholic, she found it more difficult to be close to her faith. She wanted to quit school. She stopped eating and lost 30 pounds. “I didn’t want to get up in the morning,” she says. “There was no way of denying what this was.”

When Claudia told her secular friends — who approved of her decision to end the pregnancy — she found their answers anything but helpful. They would disregard her feelings and encourage her to just shake it off. They would say, “It’s not that big of a deal,” “You’ll be OK,” and “Everything happens for a reason.”

But their responses didn’t match with what Claudia was feeling. “I was grieving my loss and the loss of my child, and that’s [the answer] I got.”

But when Claudia turned to her church, she says she found people who understood her pain. “I definitely felt the support from different priests and different religious leaders. They were very compassionate to me.”

Claudia found forgiveness from God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but, although she knew that God had forgiven her, she says it was difficult to forgive herself. “After I had gotten that type of healing from God, I had to get it from myself. For me, forgiving myself has been a little harder.”

She drew strength from her faith and her family to find this healing. She says it took a lot of reflection, but she began to feel worthy of love and to again believe in her own dignity. She joined Rachel’s Vineyard, a retreat for post-abortive woman, and wrote letters to herself and to her child. “I memorialized the part of me that I lost that day,” she says.

During the second day of the three-day retreat at Rachel’s Vineyard, Claudia made a promise. “I made a promise to God and to my child that I was going to take the pain and experience and use it for the good.”

She remembers being inspired by the devotional quote, “God can turn broken pieces into masterpieces.”

Claudia, now 27, has since completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in social gerontology. She lives in Huntington Park, where she was born and raised, and works as a counselor for a local university. She has become close again with her family, where she is loved as a sister, daughter, aunt and grandchild.

When she found herself free from the guilt and the grief, she looked for a way to keep her promise to help other women. “I owe it to my mistake to make it right and to help other women or other men that may feel that they don’t have anyone to turn to, don’t have anyone to talk to.”

Through Rachel’s Vineyard, Claudia was introduced to Merciful Companions, an initiative of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles that assists men and women who have experienced an abortion.

The organization launched on Nov. 9 following almost a year of preparing program materials and recruiting volunteers. The archdiocese felt there was a lack of a local comprehensive post-abortion healing program — a serious need for a city where the abortion rates are above the national average. In Los Angeles, more than 1 in 3 women will have experienced an abortion in their lifetime.

Even in Catholic parishes in the Los Angeles area, those rates remain the same, says kathleen-domingo, associate director for the archdiocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace.

“We know that there are millions of women and potentially hundreds of thousands of Catholic women who have experienced abortion in their past and many of them are probably wounded and are looking for some kind of healing and don’t know where to find it.” Domingo adds. “And they often have never had anyone propose to them that there is the potential for being healed.”

The special effort to offer healing is a response to Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, which ends on Nov. 20. “We are really pleased to be able to offer this to the people of Los Angeles,” Domingo says.

Domingo stresses that the program’s volunteers are looking to help and are not there to judge. The volunteers, she says, have experienced a similar loss or pain and are tapping into that experience to better assist a person in finding peace.

Domingo says volunteers are stronger from having dealt with their own personal pain. They volunteer because they can say, “I have gone through a healing process and have emerged on the other side an even stronger person than I ever could have been before.”

She adds, “It’s not just a way out of the pain, it’s actually a path forward to something even more wonderful.”

The ministry leaders are clear that, although some volunteers are counselors and/or psychologists, the volunteers are primarily a listening ear and guide for post-abortive men and women, instead of serving as professional therapists. The ministry has partnered with Options United, which will serve as the hotline to connect callers to a Merciful Companion.

Volunteers are carefully screened and take part in at least 16 hours of training in order to learn how to provide guidance to those suffering from post-abortion stress.

Callers will typically spend an hour each week with a volunteer over the course of approximately six weeks. Volunteers are both male and female, and some, like Claudia, are bilingual in English and Spanish.

The Merciful Companions volunteers act as the initial impetus for healing, which is followed by a recommended program in a parish or community group. Some callers will seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation, others will join Rachel’s Vineyard and others will explore one of the many pre-existing programs available for healing.

“We just want to connect the people that are hurting with the resources to help them heal,” Domingo says, noting that callers are not required to have a religious affiliation. “This isn’t about proselytizing. This isn’t about conversion. This isn’t about pulling one person into this church or another church.”

However, if a caller does have a faith background, he or she will be encouraged to draw strength from that source. “[Abortion is] such a tough experience to overcome that you really need to draw on every bit of strength you have to overcome it.” For some, Domingo says, faith is the path to healing.

Anyone interested in volunteering is encouraged to prayerfully discern the call, says Domingo.

Claudia has set aside several hours two days per week to assist callers. She’s eager to speak with post-abortive men and women because, as she says, “I’m one of those women who can say, ‘Been there, done that and there is still hope for everybody.’”

She’s not letting the abortion be her final story, she says. “I’m going to use that pain and that regret, and I’m going to use it for the good.”

To volunteer as a Merciful Companion, please email Sharon St. Pierre at [email protected]. To reach a Merciful Companion, please call (877) 301-9684 or email [email protected].