Over the past five years, I have lost an important person in my life every year. My brother in-law, my paternal grandfather, my maternal grandfather, a friend and mentor, and my paternal grandmother. Sam, Lewis, Oscar, Sarah, and Eleanor. Some of these deaths were sudden, some of them were anticipated- each of them had an impact on my life that defies description; each of their deaths has left holes in my life that can never be filled or replaced. I know that I am not in any way unique because of these losses, rather, it is one of the great human equalizers- we all do and will know grief and loss in our lives. As my colleagues and I began a series of trainings on grief work with domestic and sexual violence survivors 4 weeks ago, many of us acknowledged how difficult it is to talk about grief. Perhaps part of what makes acknowledging someone else’s mourning so difficult is that it is so relatable, a painful reminder of the losses we have already experienced and the losses we know we will all one day endure.
Even when a loss is concrete, like death, finding the words to know what to say and how to support someone is challenging. But we struggle even more, collectively and individually, to acknowledge losses that are less definable or permanent. In this training series we acknowledged the many losses that survivors of domestic violence can experience. If a survivor decides to leave their abuser, they may be mourning losses like the loss of a future they had hoped they would have with that person. Or the loss of the love they once shared, or the loss of their home or relationships with the friends and family of their abuser. Whether they stay or leave the relationship, survivors may experience a loss of their sense of self, or a loss of relationships with their own family and friends as their abuser isolates them from others. There are so many losses that survivors of intimate partner violence experience and it can be an important step in their healing process for friends and family to acknowledge these losses, rather than dismiss them.
Many advocates shared that the survivors they work with often share this experience of having their sadness and grief minimized by friends and family. Often, this minimization comes from the friends and family’s own fears and pains associated with that relationship. For instance, if a survivor shares with a family member that they miss their abuser, or feel sad when they learn their abuser is with a new partner, the family member may panic that their loved one will return to the person who caused them so much pain. It is easy and tempting to react by shutting down the survivor’s experience and remind them of all the negative experiences they had with that person. The fear of losing a loved one to an abusive relationship- through isolation or through death- can make it difficult for us to really hear our loved one’s experiences and know how to support them. Part of healing and the “moving on” or “moving through” process is to be able to feel and acknowledge all of the feelings and experiences that arise, even when they seem contradictory and difficult to understand.
Grief is tricky business for all of us- it isn’t logical or linear, it is uncomfortable to experience and to witness. If someone in your life is dealing with grief and loss as a result of abuse, try to be supportive. Don’t minimize or shut down their experience. Recognize and check your own reactions, and let them process their feelings honestly. If you need help supporting a friend in an abusive situation, or talking through your own feelings, REACH’s hotline is always available at 1-800-899-4000.