As always people, particularly psychologists, can categorise everything that happens to us in our lives. For example, it has been suggested that there are four phases of response to being violated. The first reaction is disbelief and shock (in some cases where adults have only just realised they were abused as children, this initial phase can be delayed). This is then followed by a ‘frozen fright’, a sort of detached pseudo calm during which the victim is compliant and appeasing. (It is this appearance of cooperation that will be confused with consent when the victim looks back on the experience). The third phase is a delayed but chronic traumatic depression combined with ’bouts of apathy, anger, resignation, resentment, constipated rage, insomnia,’ and repeated replaying of events. The final phase is characterised by resolving the traumatic experience and integrating it into the victimised person’s behaviour and lifestyle.
Before this fourth phase can occur, a grief process must take place. ‘Grief!!…’ I hear you cry, ‘…isn’t that when somebody dies?’ Well, actually whenever something is taken away from somebody he or she will experience a grief response. In the case of victims of child abuse, you have probably lost your innocence, your childhood, the ability to trust, etc. Everyone grieves in their own way but they all tend to follow a pattern. This pattern is known as the five stages of grief.
People move between the different stages at different rates and can jump around between each phase. Recovery is more of a process than an event. Is important that although talk of phases and stages seems very cold and clinical you must remember that you are suffering inside and any discussion of recovery must be done slowly and methodically. Take your time and treat yourself gently.
Grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one “right” way to do it.
Every person has experienced or will experience a loss in their lifetime. The loss may due to the death of a loved one, the end of a close relationship, the loss of a pet, or the loss of innocence through sexual abuse. As we encounter a loss, we find ourselves in the stages of mourning and grief. Losing something precious and meaningful really creates an emotional roller-coaster of painful feelings. This is a very sad and uncomfortable time in our lives. But there is always HOPE!
Some children are very good at keeping their emotions hidden deep inside. They do not cry or show outward signs of distress. When you look at them, they may appear sad or despondent, but they are unable to verbalise their feelings. For other children, they may cry, scream, and engage in destructive behaviour, as they express their feelings. They leave little to the imagination about how they are feeling. Neither of these children is more or less impacted by their loss; they just have different ways of expressing their feelings.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying” lists the five stages of grief. I believe abused children and their families go through these same loss and grief stages as they learn there is hope and healing after child abuse.
1. Denial and Isolation: No one wants to believe someone would hurt an innocent child. The first reaction is, “No, this cannot be true.” This is a normal defence mechanism that helps buffer the shock. It is an immediate response that helps carry families through the initial disclosure. Many children and families, just want to be left alone to deal with the pain. Time is their friend.
2. Anger: As reality sets in, families are not ready to address the issue they face. Slowly, anger becomes an outlet to express the pain. Anger is redirected to other people, friends, family members or complete strangers. During this time, it is just easier to be mad and angry, than to deal with the abuse. It is normal to be angry and upset when a child is abused. This coping mechanism allows families to “vent”, as they slowly comprehend what is has happened.
3. Bargaining: At this stage, the family begins to deal with the fact that the horrible act of abuse actually occurred. Feelings of anger, helplessness and hopelessness are redirected as the family struggles to regain control. Thoughts enter the minds: 1) If only I had been a better parent; 2) If only I had not left my child with…3) If only I had listened more; and the list goes on. The family is literally torn apart, emotionally and many times physically.
4. Depression: Often family members become depressed and overcome with feelings of sadness and regret. They worry about how to get their child help, what if they there are court proceedings? What if the offender is the dad and he is sent to jail? How are we going to pay the household bills? How are we going to survive this ordeal? And, the list goes on. This is an intense, panicky kind of depression. Then there is depression which is more private. Families grieve over the lost innocence of their child. They grieve for what was and think about what could have been.
5. Acceptance: Gradually, the families begin to accept what has happened, realising that they do not have to be brave, but that life will go on. They begin to find moments of happiness as the blanket of sadness and hopelessness gradually begins to fade. Not all people will be able to reach this stage of grief, especially not quickly. It takes time, hard work and a willingness to move forward.
Working through grief is not an easy process. Although there are stages of grief that each person walks through, the stages are not always progressive. Many times people work through one stage of grief to wake up the next morning and find themselves back to the hopeless, bottomless pit of feeling helpless.
Personally, I am at the stage of Bargaining. I still cannot believe it happened and find it hard to reconcile that my Mother was the catalyst for all of the abuse. It makes all the more complicated that I suffer from Dissociated Identity Disorder and she is one of my main Alters and very destructive ones intent on causing me great harm. I also have Stockholm Syndrome so this makes therapy very complicated as I come to her defence rather than blame her for her actions.
The five Stages of Grief are not linear as mentioned earlier and I move through them at different times. At times I am wracked sobbing in the therapist’s rooms for loss of my childhood, at other times angry at the men for the repeated abuse for fourteen years and other times as mentioned in total disbelief that it happened at all. There are moments of peace where I accept what happened and believe I can move on so there is hope. Grief is a very complicated and painful process for those who have experienced profound child abuse.