Last week, I wrote about grief, and about how I do not believe it is ‘love with nowhere to go’.
This week, I want to write about grief following abuse. As people who were abused as children, it can be difficult to identify grief in the myriad emotions we are containers for. We have much to grieve, though, and I do believe it is possible to grieve for things we never had: Loving parents; loving siblings; the opportunities to reach our respective potentials; knowing what safety and security feel like; and knowing what support feels like, are all on that list.
Of course we’re going to grieve these things. It is a grieving – not for what was lost – but for what should have been, but never was. This type of grief is prolonged and profound. It is not always easily acknowledged and given space – either socially, or even by therapists. When your grief is not an ‘acceptable’ form of grief, it becomes even more difficult to express, because you have no idea how it will land with the people you reveal it to. Sometimes, it’s hard to name the emotion as ‘grief’ even in our own heads. Grief is associated with loss – but can you really lose something you never had in the first place? It is my contention that you can. I know I grieve for the childhood I didn’t have; the opportunities I never had because of the impact multiple, prolonged, traumas and abuse had on me. I grieve the loss of who I might have been had I had one good adult in my life as a child, and / or young person. I grieve the loss of time and energy that I spent clinging to life when I should have been able to spend that time and energy living and progressing towards my best life.
In many ways, grief is socially moderated, and different cultures have different ways of dealing with the anguish of loss. Certain griefs are taboo in certain places, too – grieving a miscarriage, or grieving the loss of a former partner, for example. This type of grief is disenfranchised, in a way; our societies don’t always validate them the way they do other types of grief.
In the same vein not grieving for people society deems you should grieve for can lead to us being misunderstood and judged. For example, I am the daughter of a narcissistic mother (if you’re wondering if you might be, too, this could help to answer the question) and in my work with other daughters of narcissistic mothers, the issue of their mothers’ demise is something I address.
For some women, their mothers are already dead, and they have residual anger around how she was venerated from the pulpit, or in an obituary. They feel that, in order to be socially correct, they repressed the truth of their experiences of their mothers; or at the very least, they did not challenge the dominant narrative around them. This can leave them feeling frustrated, at best, and dishonest, at worst.
Other women, whose mothers are still alive, are conflicted over whether or not they will attend their mother’s funerals. There is a tension between what is ‘expected’ of them – to show up and present a face of grief – and what they want to do – to stay away from all the potentially triggering moments of the service. A middle way can be to avoid the funeral service, and go to the gathering afterwards. That way, they spare themselves having to listen to their mothers being eulogised in ways that do not ring true, while still being able to spend time with, and offer support to, friends and relations. Some women who chose to do this have told me that they were pleasantly surprised: Some family members showed awareness and sensitivity around how these women had been treated, and offered acknowledgement, validation, kindness, and understanding.
Many whose mothers have not yet died are concerned about how they will feel afterwards. What I suggest to all these daughters of narcissistic mothers is to write an honest obituary – even if they never read it aloud, publish, or otherwise share it. (In live groups, though, most women want to share the truthfulness of the obituaries they have written with the others in the group.)
Personally, I am grateful that I will never know the depth of grief that most of my friends know, or will come to know. Having spent time with those whose mothers have died, I understand that it is overwhelming, and all-encompassing. I am aware that grief pounces on them at the most unexpected of times. I am conscious of the fact that grief surrounding the loss of their mothers may lessen with time, but it never goes away. Women especially miss their mothers when they are mothers themselves. It sounds so unbearably painful, and I am so glad that I will never know that pain.
What I do know, however, is the grief I have felt for the mother I never had – or rather, the mothering I have never had. I have grieved for the fact that I never had a mother who loved me. I have grieved for the fact that I had a mother who chose to diminish me at every opportunity. I have grieved for the mother who knew her husband and sons sexually abused me, and still supported them. When she dies, I will not grieve my mother – the Mother Loss is one I have already been grieving for more than forty years.
A lot of people who were sexually abused as children – particularly if they were abused by a relative – experience trauma bonding. More commonly known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, this can see the abused person experiencing conflicting emotions when their abuser dies. They can find themselves grieving the father/uncle/brother/stepfather/stepbrother who was kind to them on occasion, while feeling upset with themselves for feeling sad that the abuser died. For some people, they only remember the abuse after their abuser dies. For one of the women I interviewed for my PhD this was the case. She was hugely conflicted after his death. She had been grieving her father, and then she realised she had to grieve the loss of healthy relationship with him, too. The emotional toll on her was exhausting.
In 2014, I received a phone call from my solicitor. I was pursuing my brothers – Nigel Talbot, and Cormac Talbot – through the courts in an attempt to hold them accountable for the years of sexual abuse I had suffered at their hands. The solicitor was phoning to let me know that he had been informed that Nigel was suffering from brain cancer, and had been given a life-expectancy of five years (he is still alive, so clearly that wasn’t true!). I remember leaving my office at the top of the old Gas building – which is now the School of Midwifery at Trinity College – and surprising myself by sitting on the stairs here and crying for him.
While I am aware that, as long as he is capable, he will be abusing people; and while I know that he sexually abused his own children, I still cried for him. Not because I would ever miss him, but because my humanity felt compassion for the person who – I thought – must have been scared knowing he had very little time left to live. I experienced a type of sorrow for the fact that he would die without ever taking responsibility for the harm he had caused – not just to me, but to his other victims, too. It is my belief that this leads to soul-turmoil, and much hard soul work after death. (For people of a Christian background, this might be similar to having to spend more time in purgatory.) Will I experience ‘normal’ grief for him when he dies? I doubt it. Rather, I think I will be relieved that he can no longer hurt people.
I feel the same way about our psychopathic father – another sex offender who is still harming people (and who found my public page on FB a few years ago, then sent the most vile private messages). In a lot of ways, he and my mother are two cheeks of the same arse, and I have very similar feelings around him, and grieving his loss when he eventually dies.
In a lot of ways, there has been a lot of grief in my life. It has not been ‘conventional’, or ‘traditional’ grief, though. As such, explaining it, and having it acknowledged – even by myself – has been far from straightforward. What about you? How has grieving post-abuse been for you?