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Home > Coping with Loss > Lost & Found

Grief and Sexual Abuse
by Sherry Russell

Survivors of sexual abuse are on a familiar first name basis with grief. They experience various losses that necessitate being worked through and being outwardly expressed. Victims of sexual abuse spawn a sea of complications creating an abyss of heartache and anguish.

Sexual abuse is an act of violence, apart from whether the abuser used physical force or not. Survivors strain to connect the dots to make sense out of what happened leading them to often question was it something they did. The realization that someone they loved or trusted committed such an unpardonable act is devastating. The survivors many times are afraid to place blame on the abuser because that would result in the victim's understanding that they had been betrayed and worse, abandoned. It is not unusual to try to spare themselves the pain of this truth by blaming themselves.

Betrayal and domination are central in victimization. Rage and panic may challenge day to day life for every survivor. They may be so consumed with rage at the abuser that they are fearful of their own expulsion of anger. Some survivors may even go through a long period of time shifting back and forth between feelings self-blame and rage at the abuser. Trying to find a way to safely release the pressure valve without professional help is like trying to clean up a large oil slick with a straw. The survivors must find a way to process the violence. Not doing so complicates the grief.

Anger may be safely released in a number of ways including exercising, finding a good place to scream all the energy out, hitting a pillow and working with a professional to unleash the anger in a controlled environment. It helps to note the instant and what is happening when anger starts to swell up. Once the anger triggers can be identified and dealt with it can then be released.

. Survivors of sexual abuse may experience such losses as:

  • loss of control over their bodies
  • ability to trust
  • innocence
  • childhood
  • loss of self-esteem
  • relationship with the abuser

These losses may weave in and out of the person's every day life unfolding a pattern of difficult relationships, loss of communication with other family members, isolation, negative behavior and depression along with an inability to function fully in society.

It is unfathomable to think that child sexual abuse has been reported up to 80,000 times in a year. What is more mind boggling is the fact that the number of unreported instances is far greater because children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened. This violent crime punishes the victim as they grow into adulthood with long-term emotional and psychological damage if the grief is not recognized and worked through.

Sexual abuse can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative. Many times it takes place outside of the home by a friend, neighbor, child care person, teacher, or stranger. When sexual abuse has occurred, the victim develops a multiplicity of stressful feelings, thoughts and behaviors. No one is psychologically prepared to cope with this type of trauma especially children.

A child of five or older who knows and cares for the abuser becomes further trapped between affection and loyalty for the person. This complicates their need to tell and their need for secrets. If the child tries to break away from the sexual relationship, the abuser may threaten the child with violence or loss of love. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy or shame of other family members, or be afraid the family will break up if the secret is told. This secret is locked up misery and grief.

Another reason many victims do not tell is the fear of dealing with law enforcement officials. A victim also has to be willing to go through subsequent medical examinations, interrogations, and perhaps media coverage which all contribute to further anxiety and pain.

Sexually abused children may develop the following and carry these long into adulthood:

  • unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature
  • nightmares
  • bed wetting
  • depression and isolation
  • seductiveness
  • statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them in the genital area
  • refusal to socialize
  • behavior problems
  • secretiveness
  • may draw aspects of sexual molestation
  • unusual aggressiveness
  • suicidal behavior

Unfortunately, many sexually abused children and their families do not get the needed professional evaluations and treatments. Instead, they try the stiff upper lip technique which allows the abuse to become a fiery foundation for the rest the life to rest upon. How can anything solid rise from such a foundation? People grow up without a way to regain a sense of self-esteem, cope with feelings of guilt about the abuse, and begin the process of overcoming the trauma. It is no wonder that so many abuse victims are burdened with serious issues as an adult.

Being sexually abused but not being able to talk about it leaves survivors feeling an added sense of shame and fewer opportunities to receive support, thus making grief more complicated.

When children are abused by people in positions of social authority or reputation such as members of the clergy, politicians, teachers, law enforcement officials, and physicians, their grieving process may become complicated for a number of reasons.  When such people are accused, it may challenge a community and/or institution. The community or institution may determine to do what they can to uphold the reputation of those accused by denying the survivors' allegations of abuse.

Perhaps one of the factors that most influence complicated grief for survivors is indifference and/or a lack of adequate support after an abuse confession.  After exposing the abuse, many survivors may be met with the denial, disbelief, or minimization of the effects of the abuse by family members and friends.  Survivors may be blamed for the abuse and the impact that the admission has on the family.  Family members may angrily reject the entire situation.  When this occurs, a survivor is not only left isolated from important people in their life but now may also feel more abuse-related guilt than ever before.

Limited financial resources to obtain the individual therapy that could aid their recovery is another problem facing survivors. Some communities do not offer a mental health center with specialized counseling for abuse survivors.  Survivors in these circumstances may have more difficulty finding the support needed to grieve.

When an overwhelming traumatic loss occurs during childhood, children may use a variety of measures to numb the pain.  Adult survivors tell of the surprisingly inventive ways they found to survive the abuse.  They may have dissociated through the use of emotional numbness and fantasy, created additional personalities, and engaged in "out-of-body" experiences.  These measures, which may have spared victims from overwhelming trauma, may continue to help them cope into adulthood.  Once into adulthood, survivors may have discovered further ways to dull the pain with alcohol and drugs as well as other compulsive behaviors to avoid any feelings associated with the abuse.

These measures suspend the grieving process because the survivor avoids or diminishes painful feelings.  These feelings need to surface and be reckoned with in order to move forward. If not the survivor may become stuck in a grief cycle.

A further complication is that many people grew up in environments where it was not acceptable to express any emotion.  They may have been punished for crying or displaying emotional upset.  Not only does this leave them with the task of learning how to express their grief but they will also experience greater difficulty trusting others who could aid them in their recovery.  Survivors may fear that if they express emotion, they will suffer further abuse or abandonment.

Survivors may be faced with a day-to-day struggle just trying to manage the direct physical consequences of abuse and the stress-related illnesses that can result from exposure to repeated abuse.  This adds to the losses that the survivor is already facing, and it can consume significant amounts of energy and resources that survivors may need to cope with the trauma.

The losses and subsequent complications of grief that many survivors of sexual abuse experience can seem overwhelming to both survivors and their supporters.  Healing is possible if survivors can:

  • identify their losses: The abuse may be recognized right away or it may be buried in the mind's tomb to slowly creep into conscious awareness. It isn't uncommon for a person to not want to believe this has happened. They also don't want to believe the amount of control it has had on their life. However, even as some people try to rationalize or deny the impact of the loss, they may also report feeling a chronic and intense sadness that continues for years after the loss or traumatic event.  These individuals are unable to connect such feelings with the loss and may minimize it, attributing their distress to current-day situations or losses that normally would not generate the intensity of emotion they're feeling. Survivors who have suppressed all or most of the emotion associated with abuse-related losses eventually begin to experience some of the emotions associated with grief.  As they move into the next phase of grief, they may search for ways to deaden the intense feelings that have begun to emerge.
  • experience their emotions: The many emotions that surface are strong.  It is not unusual to feel disoriented and to fear losing control of one's feelings.  Sometimes grief may be subtle and manageable; at other times, it may feel explosive and frightening.  Emotions may emerge slowly, or they may seem to come all at once. Emotions generally associated with loss include anger, rage, resentment, guilt, worthlessness, loneliness, sadness, despair, fear, frustration, and helplessness.
  • express their emotions: People who have allowed themselves to feel the loss can metamorphous by shedding the old feelings and behaviors. By learning new behaviors and setting boundaries for their life, survivors find areas of control. They can express their feelings and not feel restricted and controlled by the abuse. The emotions can now be safely discharged.
  • reinvesting into a life that has dealt with the pain of the past.  Learning to trust again and invest energy into new relationships and activities.

Many survivors help themselves by putting the abuse to work. By becoming involved in activities such as forming support groups, educating others about abuse and its effects, volunteering their time for hotlines or victim assistance programs are all ways to benefit other survivors of abuse. When a hand reaches out to comfort another, it is always a healing process.


Sherry Russell is a Grief Management Specialist, researcher and author of Conquering the Mysteries and Lies of Grief . Sherry has worked over the last twenty years with thousands of people in the throes of grief and has originated a series of Grief Workshops. She is an active volunteer with a local hospital and bereavement camp for kids. She is currently working on her next book for children titled The Life Adventures of Baby Boo and Zelda Lou. She believes in strong family ties, a good tennis match, volunteering and that all animals should be rescued and showered with love.

Last modified: March 1, 2005

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