Complicated Bereavement for Adult Survivors of Abuse

“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”
― Euripides

Societal mandates assert that loss is accompanied by a conventional paradigm of grief, replete with ceremonial rituals and a finite process of mourning. Yet when the loss pertains to more intangible sources of grief such as prolonged abuse and trauma, one size does not fit all.

Adult survivors of child abuse, beset by complex post-traumatic stress disorder often grapple with persistent complicated bereavement disorder. They are plagued by persistent yearnings for the love and normalcy they never had. They are weighed down by innumerable intangible losses such as safety, dignity, belonging and a cohesive sense of self.

Family as Sacrosanct

For adult survivors of chronic child abuse the notion of ‘family as sacrosanct’ is a principle that fosters confusion, alienation, shame and outrage. Within the context of familial sacredness doctrines are explicit. Love thy mother and father and honor their function and authority.

However, when that mother or father robbed that child of his/her birthright, their innocence, their childhood, even their Self, who gets to determine how that child should ‘appropriately’ respond to sundry losses or the most glaringly pivotal loss of a parent’s passing? How is the survivor to measure up to a proclamation that has no bearing on her history or her reality?

Anecdotal Forgiveness

Anecdotal forgiveness seems to be the standard advice handed out to survivors of abuse. Survivors are advised to offer absolution to the abusive parent regardless of whether the abuser has attempted any sort of restitution. Ostensibly, this will set the abuse survivor free and concomitantly confer them the designation of good son/daughter. With religious zeal, this approach is considered a crowning achievement.

Along with this prescription, the legitimacy of the survivor’s self-protective distance and detachment informed by an instinctual atunement to danger is deemed punitive and cruel.

Recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Dr. Judith Herman, refers to the aforementioned construct as the forgiveness fantasy. Dr. Herman states:

“Forgiveness is a relational process. “‘I forgive you’ is the response to a heartfelt apology and request for forgiveness. If the apology is never made, the process of forgiveness cannot take place. And “genuine contrition in a perpetrator is a rare miracle.”

Under these circumstances the abuse survivor must establish a personal pathway for grief resolution, while struggling with collective judgments, which fail to appreciate the enormous complexity and singularity of the survivor’s loss.

Mourning takes on a multi-dimensional reality in which literal death of an abuser commingles with traumatic losses. The abuse survivor is left to contend with a litany of anomalous concerns, factoring in the possibility of re-traumatization while attempting to make emotional, spiritual and philosophical sense out of a mystifying loss.

Author Robert Anderson wrote

“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.”

Ultimately it is our task as clinicians and witnesses, to assist the survivor with purposefully mourning in a realistic effort to attain some sort of tenuous resolution while helping the survivor to willingly carry on with what may forever be unsettled.

Dried rose photo available from Shutterstock

Complicated Bereavement for Adult Survivors of Abuse

Rev Sheri Heller, LCSW

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW, is a seasoned NYC psychotherapist with 25+ years experience in the addiction and mental health fields. Sheri is also an interfaith minister and playwright, and the founder of The Sistah Tribe - Phoenix Project, a therapeutic theater event for at-risk women and girls in the public sector of NYC. For more information, visit


APA Reference
Heller, R. (2016). Complicated Bereavement for Adult Survivors of Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Jan 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Jan 2016
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