How does the death of the abuser affects the survivor of abuse?
Grief over the loss of a loved one is always a personal path that may vary greatly from one situation to another. However, research and intuition tell us that there exist different types of mourning based on their circumstances.
For example, we understand that mourning for the loss of a child often has different characteristics than the process that the same person would experience for the loss of a grandfather. Therefore, from psychology we study the characteristic processes and complications that usually appear in different types of mourning: perinatal, suicide, loss of parents, partner, etc.
But how does the death of their abuser affect a survivor of abuse? Taking into account, in addition, that the abuser is usually a relative. This is a much less studied aspect from the psychological point of view (Monahan, 2003) and, nevertheless, requires special attention.
The taboo of liberating losses
If we already live in a thanatophobic society, in which the issues related to death and mourning are largely “forgotten”, silenced, ignored, rejected or hidden, even more difficult will be the social validation and acceptance of the emotions that a victim of abuse may experience at the death of their abuser. In addition, taking into account that the abuse itself is usually a situation that is also silenced, denied and hidden.
When the abuser is a family member, as occurs in the 10% of children who are estimated to be victims of physical abuse in Spain (Pereda, 2018), the social norm seems to require that the victim, who at the same time becomes a bereaved, experience sadness and great pain at the loss of your family member. However, the logical thing in these situations, and that should not be considered as a pathological response, is to feel, among other things, relief and even joy.
The loss of the abuser, unlike what it may mean for other people, for the survivor of abuse effectively involves the liberation from a toxic, abusive and unhappy relationship.(Elison & McGonigle, 2003)
As a result of the apparent social inadequacy of this sense of relief associated with the death of the relative, the victim will feel guilt, a social guilt that will prevent him from expressing his emotions, since he assumes that quite possibly the others are not prepared to accept the relief as an acceptable response in a grieving process. What’s more, you may end up repressing or denying the emotion, thinking that you are a bad person for rejoicing in the loss.
Complications in the grieving process in victims of abuse
Knowing the statistics on the high incidence of child sexual abuse and physical abuse in families, it will be relatively frequent that a grieving process can be complicated because it coincides that the deceased has been the survivor’s abuser.
Therefore, in addition to the aforementioned difficulty in managing guilt, we have to add the sequels that the abuse has left on the victim. The traumatic experiences lived as a result of the abuse itself possibly place the victim in a more difficult position to deal with a grief that we erroneously call atypical (I insist that it is normal to feel relief for the loss of a relationship of abuse, even rejoicing because the the abuser himself has also stopped suffering).
If we look at the main risk factors for complicated grief (Rando, 1993):
- Bad relationship (ambivalent or dependency) with the deceased.
- Other grief or mental health problems.
- Lack of perceived social supports.
It turns out that in the event that the deceased is the abuser, many risk factors come together, since obviously the relationship was, at best, ambivalent, the abuse itself causes psychological trauma and, in addition, as we saw before, the social norm does not allow us to count with the necessary support.
Other risk factors, such as low self-esteem or lack of support from the family environment, are also often contingent on being a victim of abuse, where at least there has been negligence by caregivers and / or a clear breakdown of the family system.
The victim of abuse will have defense mechanisms already developed and established in their mental functioning, such as repression, denial or dissociation (Monahan, 2003).
Especially, the emotional dissociation mechanisms, which can be very installed, will contribute to the victim having much more difficulties in processing the loss and not connecting with their emotions, feeling a flat spirit.
Abuse in the family context implies the existence of multiple dilemmas in the victim, such as that generated by the conflict regarding the same person being a caregiver and an abuser at the same time.
We also know that in families where sexual abuse occurs there are dynamics that revolve around isolation, shame and secrecy, leading to emotional, social and behavioral problems in victims (Roberts et al., 2004).
All these problems, far from disappearing with the death of the abuser, are exacerbated when the victim and other family members try to develop a new identity within a family system that does not enjoy healthy dynamics.
It could even happen that the victim is blocked in an ambivalent dilemma: psychologically, he could not face the abuser when he lived, and now that he has died, he has no physical way of doing it.(Monahan, 2003)
In some ways it is as if the abuse did not stop despite the death of the abuser (“from the grave continues to harm us“, says a victim who reveals herself to family members who act as if the deceased abuser was a “saint” ).
From an attachment point of view, when the abuser is a caregiver, the victim will most likely develop a disorganized attachment style (Baer & Martínez, 2006), which also makes things more difficult for him to identify their own emotions and establish healthy intimate bonds that support the grieving process.
Work the grieving process
If, in itself, no mourning is easy, in these cases, due to everything seen above, we know that “digesting” the death of an abuser in the best way possible can become a real challenge.
The accompaniment of a grief psychologist can make a big difference and help adjusting to the new situation much faster and healthier.
The therapist will accompany the client in his learning process to manage the intense ambivalent emotions that will arise along the way. Of course, the way to do this will depend on the personal circumstances and psychological state of each person.
It should also be borne in mind that the intense emotions of hopelessness, fear, vulnerability and anger of the bereaved can frighten, exhaust and even alienate the extended family and other social supports (Monahan, 2003).
Some of the therapeutic objectives associated with the grieving process will usually be:
- Reduce the possible social isolation of the survivor.
- Reduce confusion and connect with your own emotions (work on possible dissociation and alexithymia).
- Build a support system (support “sticks”).
However, in order to safely pursue these objectives, which are directly related to mourning, it will be necessary to ensure first that the consequences of the abuse itself are overcome:
- Understanding abuse and trauma processing
- Disempowerment of the abuser
- Release of self-blame.
In addition to individual psychological intervention, the therapist will be able to evaluate the convenience of the bereaved to a support group for bereavement or victims of abuse. In general, the difficulty will be in adequately combining the supports that the person needs both to overcome the abuse and to process the grief.
Baer, J. C., & Martinez, C. D. (2006). Child maltreatment and insecure attachment: A meta‐analysis. Journal of reproductive and infant psychology, 24(3), 187-197.
Elison, J., & McGonigle, C. (2003). Liberating losses: When death brings relief. Da Capo Press.
Lin, Y. Y., Servaty-Seib, H. L., & Peterson, J. (2019). Child Sexual Abuse Survivors’ Grief Experiences After the Death of the Abuser. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 0030222819868107.
Monahan, K. (2003). Death of an abuser: Does the memory linger on? Death studies, 27(7), 641-651.
Pereda, M. (2018). Más me duele a mí. La violencia que se ejerce en casa. Save The Children España. Available at: https://www.savethechildren.es/sites/default/files/imce/docs/mas_me_duele_a_mi.pdf [Accessed: 10/07/2020].
Rando, T. A. (1993). Treatment of complicated mourning. Champaign, IL: Research Press.
Roberts, R., O’Connor, T., Dunn, J., Golding, J., & ALSPAC Study Team. (2004). The effects of child sexual abuse in later family life; mental health, parenting and adjustment of offspring. Child abuse & neglect, 28(5), 525-545.
7 thoughts on “The grieving process when the deceased is the abuser”
My daughter-in-law is going through this. She lives in Brookings, SD. If you know of any resources that I can send her to help, please send them to me. A therapist that specializes would be SO MUCH help for her.
Pingback: The death of the abuser | This is my story.
I am going through this and the guilt is overwhelming because I loved my family. Just so much emotional crap.
My abuser just died this morning. I feel wholly grateful, relief, and great joy. I am grateful my mother did not die before him. It was her husband. And yes she knew.
My father died at the end of this past October. I have been having sleep disturbance, exhaustion, inability to concentrate, memory problems. He was a retired preacher. I have been both parents’ caregiver for the past 12 years. I found out these past years that both had lived their lives in smoke and mirrors and we paid for that dearly. Physical, emotional, psychological abuse was rampant in our home. My parents knew about the physical abuse from an older sibling and they chose to do nothing. I came back as an adult (with many years of therapy under my belt). I thought it would be different being an adult – it wasn’t. Now he’s gone and our mother is in a nursing home. My brother and I don’t visit because she continues her viciousness.
In a sense I lost both parents and until very recently have felt nothing. I am still in the house (hope to be moving soon). Friends have been reacting strangely when I say I feel flat about the whole thing. I thought I would feel great relief. Indifference is more like it. But, it still gets to you subconsciously. My job is concerned about my performance (& so am I). Thank you so much for this article. It has helped me understand. Why are we in such denial that grief is for loved ones only? Reality is that I stopped even liking both parents a few years back after realizing they have never been nice people. Our society has the myth that family is only about loved ones. The reality is far different for alot of us. I wrote all of this in hope to help myself and maybe someone else who is struggling with the same issue.
Pingback: We All Have a Vecna Curse – The Electives
I couldent really understand why I’ve been the way I’ve been for so many years. As I’ve got older, everything seems to be flashing back so strong. I’ve pretty much withdrawn from life in many ways.
My oldest brother died yesterday. I feel so lost and numb. I feel guilty for wanting him to die and I feel relief like somehow I am a little freer. But all in all, I am sitting in some kind of eye in an emotional storm and I am almost to frightened to move in case I get swept up in it all.
This information rings very true for me. I was startng to think I was just a bad person and I was just being like this on purpose or something. I feel like many of those who know me see me as just in a way putting on how I am on purpose. I tried so much not to be, but as time has gone by and I can’t seem to get out of feeling so lost and twisted inside, it began easier to just be more and more alone. So that people don’t give me that look and say those little things where you can hear they are fed up of hearing me going around and around.
I was just getting to a really bad place, then suddenly, he died, and I don’t know what to feel. I don’t know how I feel. Am I happy my abuser is dead? Am I sad to lose a brother? Am I free from this now? Am I going to feel like in a way he got away with it? Like never having to face that he did that from anyone. Nobody confronted him about it even when they knew. He died without having to answer for it in one way or another. I mean for that stuff specifically.
A lot of this informatin describes how I have been. It’s almost uncanny to see. But maybe I understand better now.
Today is a completely new kind of day for me. I don’t know how this works. It’s been the biggest bane in my life and theres hardly a day for ages where I havent had flashbacks and therefore thought about it or it’s invaded my sleep. And now, he is dead. Where what I am supposed to feel is feels like a big void.