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.