“It’s heartbreaking and my heart is definitely broken,” she continues. “But, it’s an overwhelming amount of grief to process and yet, it has to be processed and felt to really move on into a new way of living and perceiving your familial relationships. So, I thought it might be interesting to talk about grieving, how it’s OK to grieve and how we need to grieve this relationship that we were so entitled to and so desperately needed, and of which we were so painfully deprived.”
Breathe in, breathe out. Find a safe, comfortable place to read this post. Maybe pour yourself some peppermint tea. Because, yes, we do need to talk about grief.
Grief Need Not Be Feared
After years of being held emotionally captive, a freshly awakened adult will find strong, unexplored emotions—such as anger, confusion, panic, fear—whirling in his heart. Dark and heavy in the maelstrom will be grief.
That grief may not be seen clearly at first, for the enormity of the loss may not be fully understood at this time.
“Grief is the psychological-emotional experience following a loss of any kind (relationship, status, job, house, game, income, etc.).” (Dr. Will Meek, Psychology Today column, Note to Self)
In the agony of the time following adult survivor’s awakening, the adult survivor may overlook this grief. He may find himself rushing through different emotions. He may mistakenly believe emotions can be approached in order as if on a list or think that all emotions will be experienced separately rather than in the entanglement that they usual are.
Mostly, an adult survivor will seem to try and hurry through the grief in a desperate attempt to get the state of being emotionally healthy.
After all, no one likes being on the healing journey. Everyone would much rather be healed instantly.
Adult survivors may lack self-examination or ignore therapy in their urgency to forget the past. They may shove their darker, messier feelings—those complicated knots of emotions—under the bed to gather dust and never emerge again. They want to be happy and feel safe NOW.
However, grief must be felt, endured, and gone through to get to a healthy place.
To not recognize the loss, or rather, the myriad losses, of an abusive childhood is to prevent oneself from being wholly healed.
Grief is not generally considered a disorder but rather is viewed as an adaptation to a loss. In this respect, the process of grieving is similar to the process of healing. It involves working through the stages of grief…
“The resolution of grief requires accepting the reality of the loss, cognitively and emotionally, and reorganizing the facets of life in spite of the loss. However, resolution is not a return to the ‘old self.’ One never really returns to his or her former self. Instead, one incorporates the experience into what eventually becomes a new self. Reaching resolution requires working through grief, which takes time.” (William F. Doverspike, Ph.D., “Grief: The Journey From Suffering to Resilience“)
What Are Adult Survivors Mourning?
Grief for adult survivors is a complex emotion because so much of the loss has been built up over time and adult survivors have long learned to adapt to the constant loss of an abusive childhood.
“Victims’ grief is delayed because most abused children learn how to adapt to even astonishingly difficult circumstances in order to survive, but they do pay a price,” states Dr. Sandra Bloom in her study The Grief That Dare Not Speak Its Name. “A later crisis or loss in adult life may unmask an underlying vulnerability that has been lurking beneath the apparently normal surface of their lives for years.”
A vague sorrow follows adult survivors who have not come to grips with the reality of their childhood abuse. The dark and heavy feeling has been with them all their life. Perhaps as children, they sometimes felt long stretches of sadness that had no specific identifiable cause to outsiders. The child may have had the physical necessities of life, may have had a family that appeared outwardly stable and loving, may have even willed himself to believe the facade.
Something was not quite right. How could everything have been right when the child felt a sorrow dogging his heels, casting a shadow on a life that everyone else said was sunny?
“For adult survivors, the losses that accompany child maltreatment are cloaked in silence, lost in the shrouds of history, and largely unrecognized,” Bloom states. “But these ‘little deaths’ linger as unremoved splinters in the survivor’s psyche for decades.” (Dr. Bloom)
Much later, when they awaken, they recognize that feeling as a grief for the loss of so many things.
The Sorrows of an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse
1. The loss of a childhood that never was
The resiliency of children is what keeps them together enough to make it through to adulthood. And so, they often tell themselves that they are really not abused, no.
Everything’s fine. My family is loving. Everyone’s great.
Despite everything in children telling them that they are being abused, they cling to the belief that all is well.
That’s because the reality of their abusive childhood can be too stunning, far too overwhelming for a child to completely grasp. And so, they cushion their heart with the belief that their parents aren’t that bad, that the child is “just being too sensitive,” etc.
When the adult child awakens to reality, they have this lie of their childhood torn from them—and the loss cuts to the quick.
2. The loss of what childhood should have been
“There’s a feeling of being ripped off,” an adult survivor of childhood neglect told me recently. “You didn’t get what you were supposed to get in childhood.”
The right of a child is to have a parent’s unconditional love.
After all, “a child is not something owed to one, but is a gift,” states The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Good parents love their children, listen to them, spend time with them, encourage them, laugh with them, help them grow into kind and good people. Good parents equip their children with what they need to have healthy, safe childhoods. Good parents respect the personhood of their childhood.
“The relationships within the family bring an affinity of feelings, affections and interests, arising above all from the members’ respect for one another. The family is a privileged community called to achieve a ‘sharing of thought and common deliberation by the spouses as well as their eager cooperation as parents in the children’s upbringing.'” (226 CCC)
Waking up to the realization that you needed so much more than what you were given emotionally is grief-inducing.
3. The loss of the people who never were
Once an adult survivor awakens to the truth, he will, through therapy and prayer, come to see the truth of who his parents are. And this realization, the unmasking of abusers, is shocking and hard.
The adult child may have seen his father as “strong, loving, doing what needs to be done” and excused aberrant behavior out of a filial love. Despite any evidence to the contrary, the “loving parent” persona has been a fixture in the adult child’s life.
But now… an adult child loses the people that never were.
Snow is on the ground
but this is not my landscape now,
where I find myself without you.
Oh I never knew you from the sun.”
(Karen Peris, “I Never Knew You From the Sun” song)
4. The loss of the present
Once awakened, an adult survivor is changed.
He may want to go back to the pre-awakening life. He may reject what he has discovered. Or he may embrace his new knowledge and run toward a new life. He may dig deep into understanding what was endured, what was taught, what can be done to live an emotionally healthy life.
Whatever the choice, the fact is that the adult survivor is different by being awake. And that means that what was has changed. An awakened adult will lose her slippery grasp on imagined people and on her hopes for the present.
Life’s different now. And that fact might be very difficult for adult survivors to face. Some even may try to go back to the old ways. But for those who remain strong and fight the hardest battle, they may grieve the present because they know hard work and a different path are now ahead of them.
5. The loss of the future
An adult survivor may have thought about his future at some point, one that included his parents. Or at least, that included his perception of who his parents were. Perhaps he imagined taking care of his parents in their old age and reconnecting emotionally—wishing, perhaps subconsciously, for his parents’ old age to bring a reconciliation or something deeper and kinder than what is.
Or perhaps an adult survivor may have imagined his parents as grandparents, perhaps helping out with the grandchildren, pitching in financial or emotional support. Despite the adult survivor’s gut feeling that everything will be as it was with him, he clings to the hope for a better, emotionally safer and healthier future.
But that’s most probably not going to happen.
And so the imagined future, with older parents who aren’t abusers, dies.
The grief digs deep into the heart.
6. The losses felt by their younger selves
An awakened adult survivor will have post-traumatic stress disorder—the trauma triggering it being “childhood.”
Memories of the past will not feel the same. Now, you’ll see the past through a clearer, longer-reaching lens. In looking through the new lens, you’ll find yourself full of deep sympathy for your childhood self. Many adult survivors even refer to themselves as “little Cary” or “little James.” And they’ll feel that sorrow, almost re-experience it, as the child once more.
You’ll be far more connected to your younger self, who has found his voice.
All these griefs can feel overwhelming and heavy. You may find yourself scared and panicked and confused at times. Or you may want to crawl back to your unawakened days.
Grief can make you want to mollify it with drugs, alcohol, sex, food binges, etc.
But there are healthier, safer ways to get through the grief.
How to Handle Grief
The weight of all this grief may feel too much to bear, but know you are not alone. Other adult survivors of emotional child abuse have felt similar emotions are yours, and they have learned, through time and therapy and prayer, to trim those sorrows into smaller, more bearable pieces. The sorrow will not go away completely, for those griefs have already been carved into your heart… but they will no longer threaten to stop it from beating.
You can live through this sorrow. You can come through it stronger than you could have imagined.
- Go to therapy.
You need someone to help you through your memories, to help guide you through the grief, to know if you are fixating on sorrows, to note how much you have grown and learned. The right therapist will be your guide to a healthier, emotionally stronger you. Seek this advocate in your life. You deserve it.
- Share your sorrow with a safe friend.
Make sure you confide in a trustworthy friend, and know he/she really cares about you and wants you to be a healthier, stronger self. You’ll need a confidante, and you’ll also need a friend to pull you out of the sorrows now and then and share the gift of laughter.
- Read about emotional child abuse and how to heal from it.
Don’t just read about the damaging behaviors or the abuse itself… Also, read about how you can heal from your grief.
Pray for strength and courage to work through your grief. Pray for healing. Pray for all other adult survivors of emotional child abuse who you know or who read The Invisible Scar. Pray with words or music or tears. Pray in silence, just a mindful quiet in the presence of He Who Loves You Most in the World.
Know you are not alone.
Know you matter.
And know that you can be healed.
Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, Loyola Press, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.