Many factors affect the way survivors process grief after the death of an abuser. Abuse survivors are impacted differently based on their experiences and the circumstances of their abuse. Other factors include how the abuser died and the victim's relationship with the abuser at the time of their death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Feeling Might Surface When Your Abuser Dies?
- Tips for Coping When Your Abuser Dies
- Tips for Helping a Loved One Cope When Their Abuser Dies
For many survivors, the death of their abuser raises complex grief reactions, including confusion and feelings of profound sorrow. Victims of abuse may have challenging time processing their grief because they may suffer their experiences with the deceased in silence if they choose not to share their history of abuse.
When others know about the abuse, they often assume that the survivor feels liberated from the deceased's toxic and abusive relationship. But the feelings that surface after an abuser dies are usually complicated and differ from one survivor to another.
What Feeling Might Surface When Your Abuser Dies?
The death of an abuser can create complicated grief reactions for victims of abuse. A certain stigma is attached to survivors of abuse, whether sexual, physical, psychological, or emotional. For that reason, many survivors choose to keep their abuse hidden. The issues resulting from non-disclosure of the abuse can further exacerbate the victim's feelings of grief and loss.
A survivor may deal with increased problems related to the traumatic experience. Along with these complications, victims often suffer from disenfranchised grief that occurs when society fails to acknowledge their losses.
The grieving process following the death of an abuser is different for each individual. Some survivors may have difficulty establishing a new identity post-loss, may have aggravated and complex grief reactions associated with disclosure of the abuse, and may have trouble in meaning-making related to their experiences. Some of the conflicting emotional responses will produce the following reactions:
- Shame and isolation
- Emotional, social, and behavioral issues
When your abuser dies, you can expect to undergo a grieving process that ebbs and flows in what’s known as the five stages of grief. During these stages, a grieving individual may experience bouts of shock and disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance of their loss. You can also expect feeling numb after a death of someone abusive toward you.
Every grief experience is different. However, a common shared experience is when an abuse survivor relives the anxiety and fear of the traumatic experience whenever their abuser dies. Survivors of abuse can feel insecure about their past trauma. They might also be ashamed of having a continued relationship with their abuser before their death and for mourning their loss.
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Other losses survivors grieve
Grieving the death of an abuser is a complicated process for the survivor because they may be conflicted by their grief reactions following the abuser's death. The feelings that surface might confuse the survivor because they don't fully understand their grief.
It's not uncommon for survivors to grieve over the loss of the abuser, whether or not they still love them. But there are other, secondary losses that a survivor may suffer. These losses come in the form of lost relationships, the lost time spent in the abusive relationship, and the loss of one's identity.
As a survivor grieves their losses, five factors affect their grieving process:
- Identity and role of the deceased
- Age and gender of the survivor
- Circumstances relating to the death of the abuser
- Overall well-being of the victim
- Victim's personality
Tips for Coping When Your Abuser Dies
As a survivor of abuse, you can expect to deal with many profound grief-related emotions. The complexity of these emotions may have you experiencing feelings of hopelessness, fear and anxiety, vulnerability, anger, and disbelief. As a result, many abuse survivors also deal with the alienation of their family members and support groups. The following are some tips on how to best cope with the death of your abuser.
1. Understand how abuse trauma works
When your abuser dies, you can expect to feel confused about what you “should” be feeling. You might suffer their loss, but you might not understand why you're feeling such complicated emotions over their death. Whatever your feelings, they’re a valid grief response. Exploring your grief reactions may take months of self-reflection and shouldn't be influenced by how others feel or think that you should react to the death of your abuser.
2. Disempower your abuser
Reclaim power over your life and emotions after your abuser’s death so that you can live free from their control from beyond the grave. When you take back your power from your abuser, you accelerate the healing process. They’ll no longer be able to manipulate your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Although their death may temporarily trigger traumatic memories of the abuse creating negative psychological consequences on your overall wellbeing, it’s crucial to confront your experience and take back your power from them.
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3. Release any self-blame
Many abuse victims blame themselves for the trauma experienced. They find reasons to justify why they deserved the abuse or why they were at fault for the abuser's behavior. Whenever their abuser dies, the victim may have trouble deciding whether to tell others about what's happened.
Victims may fear judgment or blame. Disclosing the abuse can trigger the victim, so it might feel easier to blame themselves. It's not uncommon for survivors to feel ashamed and isolate themselves from others, making it nearly impossible to seek support from friends and family.
4. Join a support group for victims of abuse
Joining a support group is an excellent way of receiving support from others who’ve suffered through similar traumatic experiences. Disclosing abuse to other family members, especially after the abuser dies, may not be a welcoming experience for the victim.
Many families fear the stigma that attaches to abuse of any kind and how it affects the legacy of the deceased person. A victim might not have any recourse for support within the family and will do better by joining a support group to share their experiences with others who understand. Families often handle cases of abuse in secrecy and isolation, with no one wanting to talk about the effects on the victims.
5. Seek outside intervention
For many victims of abuse, it'll become necessary to seek the professional guidance of a grief therapist or counselor to help them overcome the trauma of their experiences. A grief counselor can help a victim adjust to life after the death of their abuser while guiding them in reimagining their future despite the emotional and psychological setbacks they'll encounter.
Professional guidance helps bereaved survivors heal faster and healthier than trying to resolve the complicated emotions following this type of loss on their own.
Tips for Helping a Loved One Cope When Their Abuser Dies
Grief looks and feels different for every individual surviving an abusive relationship. Your loved one coping with complicated emotions after the death of their abuser will need your help and support in getting through some very challenging times ahead. You may not understand why they’re feeling the way they do, but you can lend your support by following some of these tips.
6. Validate their feelings
When someone you don’t like dies, the natural reaction is to want to feel relief. But despite your loved one’s best efforts to be happy about their abuser’s death, their feelings can be much more complicated than this.
Regardless of how much they hate their abuser for hurting them, they may still love them on a deeper level. Their death may cause them to experience unanticipated losses. How they express their grief after the loss of their abuser will impact their grief journey. There isn’t any correct way to grieve, and all feelings of grief should be honored and respected.
7. Help them forgive themselves
Some abuse victims will blame themselves for what they suffered. They may find it difficult to forgive themselves for allowing the abuse to take place or for not being brave enough to report or stop it. While forgiveness of their abuser isn’t necessary for healing, self-forgiveness is. Gently guide your loved one into understanding the difference between needing to forgive themselves and not needing to forgive their abuser.
8. Support their new sense of self
An abuse victim can suffer through the loss of self-identity after the death of their abuser. One reason for this phenomenon is that the victim often has positive emotions toward their abuser. After their abuser's death, your loved one may have trouble adjusting to who they are now that they're no longer their abuser's victim. Try not to be judgmental. They'll need all the support they can get as they forge a new identity.
9. Encourage them to get counseling
With the help of professional counseling or therapy, your loved one can accelerate the healing process. Many abuse survivors benefit from the guidance that counseling provides in reassessing who they are and finding new meaning in their lives. A professional counselor can help them regain a sense of self and forge a new identity as they explore their losses.
How Your Abuser’s Death Affects You
Many existing factors will impact how you process your abuser’s death. Everyone’s emotional reactions are unique and have their own grief trajectories. You can expect that dealing with this type of loss will have several ebbs and flows before understanding and healing occur.
- Mullar, J. A. "An exploration of the impact of the death of a child sexual abuser on the grief process of adult survivors who are counsellors." Master's Thesis, Universtity of Chester, United Kingdom, 2017. chesterrep.openrepository.com