Grief- The Hidden Experience

When a woman who has been abused in a relationship decides to leave, or when a victim of sexual abuse decides to speak up, we all tend to focus on the positive aspects of that decision. There is no doubt those decisions can have a very positive influence in the rest of that person’s life. On the other hand, we are not as good at recognising her immense losses. We expect her to be happy about her new life. We celebrate her strength, but we are not too good at allowing her to grieve for the person or persons that have been left behind; for the loss of such things as the relationship, her status in society, her familiar environment, and many other important aspects of her life. In this paper I will draw together researched evidence that I believe supports my personal experience of leaving an abusive relationship.

Bowlby (cited in Warden 1988) defines attachment as any form of behaviour that results in a person attaining, or retaining, proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individual. He argues that attachments come from a need for security and safety, and they have a survival value. Their goal is to maintain an affectionate bond, and when that is threatened, people have a reaction that includes very specific behaviours, such as clinging, crying, or angry coercion. If these actions are successful and the bond is restored, the actions cease and the distress is alleviated. If that does not happen, the person will experience withdrawal, apathy, and despair. According to Doka (1989) “There are circumstances, however, in which a person experiences a sense of loss but does not have a socially recognised right, role, or capacity to grieve. The person suffers a loss but has little or no opportunity to mourn publicly.”

When considering sexual, physical and emotional abuse as a powerful reason to damage the bonds created by attachment, the consequent grief experienced by the survivor is undoubtedly a loss that is not, or cannot be, openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported. Doka argues that societies have grieving rules that attempt to specify who, when, where, how, how long, and for whom people should grieve. I have found that these rules do not reflect the nature of the attachment, the sense of loss or the feelings of the survivor. Therefore, the grief is disenfranchised. Doka goes on to say that the very nature of disenfranchised grief creates additional problems for grief, while removing or minimising sources of support.

In my own and indeed the experience of other women, the interventions received by survivors of abuse from support services are not counselling interventions, but information and support. That support is short-term, intensive and geared to solve immediate problems, such as housing, income, and safety. This, together with the pressures placed on services to meet certain outcomes, does not provide the opportunity for helpful conversations in which women could be encouraged to express and mourn their losses. In addition, the financial constraints most women face after separation prevent them from accessing private counselling.

Most people in our society (including community and social workers) think that abused people are much better off out of that relationship. They might also think that, even if it seems difficult right now, given the appropriate time, survivors can forget about their current predicaments and get on with their lives. This attitude prevents both the survivor and the worker from recognising that important aspects of the person’s life have been lost, and that these losses have negative implications for the person involved. The Grief Recovery Institute mentions that one of the most damaging ‘killer clichés’ about loss is that ‘time heals all wounds’. Although recovery from loss does take time, it is the action within time that leads to successful recovery (Grief Recovery Institute 2002). Perhaps if those actions were attended to, it would help survivors minimise the number of attempts they make to break free from abusive relationships. Allowing them to express and acknowledge what they have lost, even when it goes against society’s held ideas. It does not mean that we accept what happened to them as right. Rather; we are accepting, without judgment that those are the feelings being experienced by the person at that particular moment in time.

In 1998, researchers commissioned by Australia’s Office of Status of Women interviewed 150 women about their experiences of domestic violence, its effects and what support was, or would have been, helpful (Keys Young 1998). The women identified emotional and personal support as one of their major unmet needs. They commented that feelings of trauma, guilt, loneliness, confusion, and sadness were common after leaving the relationship. They said things like: “I lost my kids. They can’t understand why I left. I can’t tell them what happened, so they think I left them. I’ve left my job, my home, my husband and my kids. And I can’t tell them why” (Keys Young 1998:62). ” That’s who I really, really feel for at the moment, is the kids. I’m not there for them. Now I’m grieving for that process” (Keys Young 1998:63). It is not only society that inhibits abused women from mourning their losses. Kauffman (1989) argues that: In self-disenfranchised grief, incipient grief is not recognised or [is] covered over, much the same as in socially disenfranchised grief, except that the source is oneself. He affirms that the specific psychological phenomenon operating is shame. The person will then inhibit the expression of grief regardless of other people’s opinions. The source of shame is not based in the actual views of others, but on what the person imagines are the views of others, or in the intra-psychic dynamics of the individual. Individuals are disenfranchised by their own shame. Kauffman calls shame the social emotion, because to some extent people’s awareness of themselves in the company of others is regulated by shame. The grief that covers shame could have consequences for the person’s relation to other people, themselves, their own humanness, and for realising what is sacred within themselves and their communities.

In the Keys Young report, women spoke of shame as being one of the major factors inhibiting them from disclosing about domestic violence or seeking help (Keys Young 1998:28). “I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening to me because I was ashamed. It’s too much of a shame job. It is a complete shame thing … Even in my mind, even today, I cannot justify why I allowed that to happen”. The shame of disclosure is then compounded with the shame of grieving and regret. In my own experience I concur with Jenny Dwyer and Robyn Miller (1996) who have explored the ways in which society prevents women from mourning losses as a direct consequence of an abusive relationship. For mothers, this is the loss of the family unit, loss of the marriage, loss of self-esteem and identity, and loss of the expected future. It is compounded by self-blame and profound despair as they face the full consequences of their disclosure and the actual events of the abuse. The consequences include loss of the family and community, loss of self-esteem and identity, and loss of a normal future. In addition, experience from supporting women on telephone counselling lines has identified the following issues of which I have identified:

  • loss of some aspects of their past, when their own survival prompted them to bury some memories until they were able to deal with them properly;
  • loss of dearly loved members of the perpetrator’s family, such as in-laws, or other people with whom they had relationships they treasured;
  • loss of the right to tell their own stories for fear of being shunned or being seen by others as responsible for the abuse they suffered; loss of the dream of being ‘properly’ loved by someone and being a partner in a respectful relationship;
  • loss of innocence and trust in others;
  • a sense of loss of their own ‘good judgement capacities’, given that they are often made to feel responsible for the violence because they ‘always choose that type of man’.

Herman (1992) indicates that recovery unfolds in three stages, all of which have a central task: the establishment of safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection with ordinary life. About remembrance and mourning, she says that the survivor very often resists the need for mourning, not only out of fear but also out of pride, not to allow the perpetrator to have a victory over her. Herman highlights the importance of reframing that mourning as an act of courage, rather than an act of humiliation. If a woman is unable to grieve, she will be cut off from a part of herself, and robbed of an important part of her healing. In Herman’s words: “Her healing depends on the discovery of restorative love in her own life; it does not require that this love be extended to the perpetrator. Once the survivor has mourned the traumatic event, she may be surprised to discover how uninteresting the perpetrator has become to her and how little concern she feels for his fate. She may even feel sorrow and compassion for him, but this disengaged feeling is not the same as forgiveness (1992:190).

According to Herman, once the survivor has had the opportunity to mourn the old self that the trauma destroyed, she has to face the task of developing a new self and creating new relationships. Herman compares this experience with the experience of a person migrating to a new country, in which she has to create a new life in a culture different from the one she has left behind. That in itself is wonderful and frightening. Perhaps the task for workers should be to conceptualise a more integrated support for women and children who have been victims of abuse. That will need policies implemented to support victims to go beyond the crisis. Women leave and are supported by available services, at the level they are funded to do so. It is not lack of commitment; it is lack of resources due to lack of funding.

I am convinced, if that type of support was available, it would make a difference to the quality of life that many women and children would achieve, if we could think of services in a more adventurous and holistic way. It seems that as a society we are just beginning to understand the consequences of not only abuse but the untreated grief it generates and the many different ways it can emerge. It is not an individual worker or a service provider responsibility only. It requires a different way of thinking about our social views both individually and as a community.




Doka, K. (1989) Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow,Lexington Books,Massachusetts

Dwyer, J. and Miller, R. (1996) The Experience of Victims, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, Vol. 17, No. 3

Grief Recovery Institute (2002) ‘Killer Clichés about Loss’, website:

Herman, Judith (1992) Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Pandora,London

Kauffman, J. (1989) ‘Intrapsychic Dimensions of Disenfranchised Grief’, in K. Doka, Disenfranchised Grief: Recognising Hidden Sorrow, Lexington Books, Massachusetts

Keys Young (1998) Against the Odds¾How Women Survive Domestic Violence: The needs of women experiencing domestic violence who do not use domestic violence and related crisis services, Office of the Status of Women, Barton, ACT.

Warden, J.W. (1991) Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy; a handbook for the mental health practice, 2nd edition, Springer Publishing, N.Y.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jennie
    Aug 14, 2011 @ 09:05:26

    This has hardly left my mind since I read it. So amazingly well defined. I hope you make it available to those who deal with abuse survivors. I am sure I learned a ‘little’ about this either in my University studies or in a short grief course, but I do remember it being such a small aspect, and I agree with you that it should have more attention. I hope you get this message out there. In the same way that I have always wanted to help people with parenting and didn’t think I could truly do so until I had children, I do believe that those who have been through abuse and survived are the best to help guide others through. What a privelidge to be able to walk with others through such a journey, where the club membership is not one anyone would choose.


  2. wso download
    Mar 14, 2013 @ 06:04:08

    I’ve recently started a web site, the info you provide on this web site has helped me greatly. Thanks for all of your time & work. “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” by Homer.


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