11/24/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Complicated Grief: Grieving the Loss of Your Perpetrator


I had planned this post to be on getting through the holiday season when the people you spend it with are dysfunctional. It's something the majority of my clients face every year. Whether it's people with no boundaries or being triggered at every turn of your childhood home, the holidays are not the "happiest time of year" for everyone.

Instead I find myself on a plane flying to my childhood home to attend one of my abusers' "celebration of life" (he didn't want a funeral).

The irony of the situation certainly hasn't escaped me. As a psychotherapist specializing in helping survivors of abuse heal, I help people navigate these family issues day in and day out.

Now here I am navigating the choppy waters of balancing grief for the man everyone told me loved me and would do anything to protect me and the feelings of indifference and to some degree relief that he will no longer harass me or my family for speaking the truth of my abuse.

When I first heard he had been admitted to the hospital and was on a ventilator with no brain activity I didn't feel much of anything. Though I remember wondering if I should go back home. Not for him, but for the rest of my family.

Then I wondered if being there would make it more difficult for them because of the knowledge of what he did to me and knowing how much he hated me for coming forward. Would my presence inhibit their ability to grieve the man they loved?

Additionally, how would I respond when someone inevitably expresses their sympathy by saying kind words about a man I knew very differently? Would my vulnerability created by this loss cause me to react in a defensive way and inform them of who he really was? Ultimately, through processing these fears with a trusted person, I was able to recognize I've been on the other side of healing long enough I will likely not feel the need to self-protect.

The conflicting feelings around this have been the most difficult part of my grief so far. Though I know that is likely to change over the coming weeks and possibly months.

Grief is a complicated process under normal circumstances. The more complicated (dysfunctional) the relationship, the more complicated the grief.

There are five stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

As I write this today, only a few days in, I am in acceptance. However, grief is not a linear process and it's quite possible a few hours from now, once I am driving around my hometown, I may jump from one to the next and back again.

The loss of an abuser can be very triggering. It can bring up memories you haven't thought about for years and you can find yourself returning to old patterns of thinking, feeling, and reacting.

It's important to allow yourself to feel whatever feelings come up for you. Grief is messy and hard. It's normal to feel a variety of feelings, sometimes all within a matter of minutes.

It's likely you loved the person who abused you. It's also quite possible you had a relationship with that person until they passed away.

Not only do you grieve the loss of the abuser's life, but often grieve the loss of hope for the relationship to be something different or for the abuser to take responsibility for the abuse and ask for forgiveness.

Grief can be even more complicated when the people around you are unaware of the abuse or what complicated grieving is. It's important to have someone you can process these feelings with, someone who understands the conflicting feelings that may come up. It may be a friend or partner, or possibly a therapist. Just please don't try to navigate these waters on your own.

Learn more about childhood abuse and healing from Courageous Journeys.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.