This is an excerpt of an article about grief recovery that first appeared in Allure. To see the original, please visit: The Complex Process of Grieving Your Abuser
Rummaging through a box recently, looking for some old photos, I came across a few letters from a man I was once engaged to, nearly 20 years ago. It’s difficult to pinpoint why I decided to reread the letters, especially since I don’t like rehashing relationships that ended badly. But this relationship didn’t just end badly, it ended because he was emotionally abusive, and perhaps I was subconsciously looking for closure.
Two years ago, when a mutual friend told me he’d passed away from heart failure, I wasn’t ready to process his death. I thought I’d already put him and that relationship behind me. Apparently, that wasn’t the case, and I still had some emotional heavy lifting to do. The thing is, many of us mourn our loved ones when they pass away, even those with whom we weren’t on the best of terms. But how does one reconcile grieving for someone who previously abused them?
Grief Is Complicated
Naively, I didn’t realize reading the letters would open the Pandora’s box of my past abuse. As I stood there reading, remembering my former demoralizing relationship, I started sobbing uncontrollably. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe and went into a full-fledged panic attack. “For every individual, grieving loss can look and feel different given the nature of the relationship. Death can act as a trigger of the trauma someone has endured,” says Verna Griffin-Tabor, CEO and executive director of the Center for Community Solutions, a California-based organization with a mission to stop violence against women.
Though I felt like something was wrong with me for grieving someone who had treated me so poorly, it turns out that my reaction was quite common. “It is natural and quite normal to grieve the death of someone you once cared about, in spite of the emotional abuse,” Griffin-Tabor says.
The next couple of months were excruciating. I was mourning in silence, full of gut-wrenching shame about grieving the death of a man who emotionally abused me. My anxiety triggered insomnia, and I was reluctant to share my feelings with my wife. I was suddenly struck by a plethora of questions: Did he know how badly he’d hurt me? Had he been remorseful? Did he ever get professional help?
Dara Bushman, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Florida, says that the feeling of having unfinished business when grieving is totally natural: “When feelings of grief or anger are experienced for an abuser, disbelief over them passing can impact you at an even greater level, leaving individuals thinking they should have done things differently.”
Sadness Doesn’t Mean You Deserved Abuse
In retrospect, I also thought my grief for him meant I had somehow deserved my past abuse, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. “There is often the idea that grief is a sign of love and respect. People think if they do grieve, it means they must have truly loved [the person] or it means they were alright with the abuse,” says Bushman. “The amount of pain has nothing to do with the amount of hurt you may have experienced or the amount of love for the deceased person.”
No Two People Experience Grief the Same Way
“It is important to remember there is not one way to grieve or heal. The grieving process can come in waves and at unpredictable times,” Griffin-Tabor says. I have been learning that grief is not linear, and she reinforces this idea, adding, “The range of emotions we experience [with] grieving can fluctuate within minutes from sadness, to anger, to being completely numb.”
Allowing myself to grieve his death meant reliving the anxiety, fear, insecurities, poor decisions, and months of depression the relationship had inflicted on me. It also reminded me of the person I never wanted to become again. “When you lose someone you loved at one time, or even still love, but were abused by, you may grieve for the time lost — precious years of your life spent in the abusive relationship,” Stern explains. “You may grieve for your former ‘self’ in hindsight, now that you are stronger, more optimistic, more open. And you may grieve for the fact that you are forever changed by that relationship.”
If you are experiencing the symptoms of grief and would like to explore ways to get past the pain and reclaim your life, I invite you to book a free discovery session with me: Book with Karen
Karen Rolls, Registered Nurse, Certified Advanced Grief Recovery Specialist