I was not prepared for the losses I would experience as a result of my disclosure of the abuse I had endured. I do not recall what I believed would happen after I told a teacher at school about my life at home. Disclosures are not often accompanied by a long-term plan, most of the time, we are just hoping we survive breaking the chains of secrecy. If I had known what loss would include in the aftermath of my disclosure, I am not sure at 13 years old, I would have had the same courage to tell. I only share this thought because I still see in media and hear in people’s stories how negligently disclosures are handled. Disclosures are costly, but they are worth it.
Many emotional responses manifested before grief showed up after my disclosure. It was not until probably a decade after my disclosure that I realized there was grief in my healing. Sure, I recognized the sadness, anger, confusion, and fear. But I did not recognize the grief that accompanied the losses until much later. It is vital that anyone who works with trauma survivors creates a space for grief as part of the healing process.
On November 9, 2004, I had a large extended family. I never considered them my step-family. They were my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma, and neighbors who were more like family. Before I closed my eyes to go to bed on November 10, 2004, what felt like an enemy line had been drawn. In a single day, fifteen close relationships were severed. The magnitude of the loss did not hit me all at once, thankfully. But I quickly learned that I would never again ride four-wheelers or hang out with the cousins or take the boat out on the river for water sports with an aunt and uncle. When I would see my former cousins at school, there was an unspoken understanding that we would no longer interact. At 13, I struggled to understand why the people I grew up with now seemed to hate me. All I had done was tell the truth. Throughout my healing journey, there have been many times I wished I could have one more conversation with the people who played a significant role in my childhood. Someone does not have to die for you to grieve the loss of the relationship you once had with them.
Grief after trauma encompasses much more than the loss of relationships and people in our lives. In previous posts, I have discussed some of the different types of losses, so I am not going to go into detail here. Instead, I want to share what has helped me make room for grief.
1. Gain an understanding of grief. It was not until I was an adult that I learned what grief looked like outside of experiencing death. Understanding the emotions and thoughts that often accompany grief helped me put a name to what I noticed within me. I found that many of the beliefs I had about grief were simply myths and expectations people typically hold about what grief should look like and how long it should last. Grief is often much more complex than we imagine.
2. Identifying the losses. I do not believe grief can properly begin until we are able to name exactly what has been lost. Relationships. Homes. Pets. Material items. Dreams. Safety. Naivety. Wellness. Economic status. Self-esteem. Trust. Job. Faith. Identity. Hope.
3. Identify what can be reclaimed. Some of the losses may be temporary or time-bound. Some losses may be reclaimed through counseling, time, and God’s provision. Some losses are permanent, and we move towards acceptance. There are some relationships that will never be safe or healthy to pursue reconciliation. My pets that were left in the care of my abuser are likely no longer living. While thoughts sometimes try to sneak in and convince me that my pets suffered in his hands, I choose instead to believe an alternative narrative that they all found loving homes in my absence. In this situation, I have no way of knowing what happened and I do not see any harm in choosing a more comforting narrative of what likely happened to them. The feeling of safety took a while to re-establish in my life. Trust has taken years to rebuild and often takes me longer to form in new relationships as a result of the way my abuser shattered my trust. My faith in Jesus Christ took years after my disclosure to establish.
4. Acknowledge grief when it shows back up and leave room for the ambivalent feelings. I was driving back to New Orleans after the holidays and was just a few miles from the house I lived in with my abuser when I passed a potbelly pig in someone’s yard. While it did not look like my sweet Petunia exactly, I was quickly hit with a wave of grief, wondering what happened to her and wishing my story with her could have ended differently. I have learned that if I recognize those emotions that arise in the wave, allow myself to feel them without judgment, acknowledge the thoughts that surface, and challenge any unhelpful cognitions, the intensity of that moment of grief relieves itself more quickly than if I try to shut the grief down. It does not mean the grief does not hurt, but it does not get to control the narrative of my life.
By providing space for the grief as it showed up, I noticed over time it no longer took up as much room as it once required.