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Coping When an Abusive Person Passes

This form of grief can bring the trauma trifecta—relief, sadness, and guilt.

Key points

  • The grief that comes with losing an abusive person is complex.
  • It is normal to feel a range of emotions and feelings when an abusive person passes.
  • Relief, sadness, and even guilt are common, but some survivors experience other emotions—all are normal.

Sheila hung up the phone, her face displaying the feelings she felt unable to express aloud. Her wife stood at the sink, dish only partially washed, knowing instinctually the meaning of the silence that hung in the room.

"He's gone," she said.

Sheila had grown up in a home riddled with domestic violence. Her father suffered horrible bouts of untreated mental illness. His attempts to self-medicate with alcohol and other substances would provide him some relief, but led to behavior that only traumatized her, her older sister, and their young mother further. She left home at 17, following her older sister who had left years before.

Her father remained abusive to her mother, who the girls spoke with only during holidays or birthdays. "There was not much to say," Sheila said of their minimal interactions. "She was unwilling to leave him... unable I guess?" It was the late 60s, and women initiating divorce for things such as domestic violence was still a new concept, and one that was almost unheard of in her small southern town.

So many years had gone by that Sheila barely thought of her father, although the emotional scars of the chaos and violence in the home never went away. She had often thought about how she would feel during this inevitable moment. Would she feel sad? What if she didn't... did that make her a bad daughter?

When it actually happened, she found that she felt some relief. "But then I immediately felt guilty for feeling relief! Isn't that horrible... to feel a positive thing about a person passing? ...especially one's own parent?" Her words came out fast.

Sheila had been through a lot in her 70 years. She was strong, and she had good support. According to her, her grief was minimal, and was easily manageable. However, her mother—who had lived with him up until his death—shamed Sheila for speaking of her father's abuse. "You mustn't speak ill of the dead," her mother cautioned.

"It is time to forgive," she commanded to her daughter, dismissing and denying everything the three women had lived with for so many years in 5 small words.

Source: StockSnap / Pixabay
Source: StockSnap / Pixabay

In our culture, it's considered taboo to speak ill of the dead. This means what when an abusive person dies, those who know their true character often struggle with how to speak about them. They may struggle to find words to describe their emotions and experiences, not wanting to lie about the person, but also not wanting to lie to themselves. This lends very few spaces to people who experienced harm from someone who has passed.

When an abusive person dies, those who they harmed are met with a range of difficult, often conflicting, emotions. This is especially true for those who never had the opportunity to work through the trauma they experienced. However, even those who thought they had healed can be surprised at the strength of emotions experienced during this time.

It is common to feel a sense of relief when an abusive person has passed. For some, their brain knows that this finality signals absolute freedom from their actions. However, after feeling relief, some may notice that they instantly feel guilty for feeling it. Our culture does not have an understanding, or an acceptance, of the mixed feelings that come from knowing that a harmful person has passed. Due to expectations that we should value life above all else, positive feelings such as relief or even happiness are often shunned, causing many survivors to feel even more isolated. Even worse, many are told by family and society that they need to forgive, and to let the person go in peace. This is not only victim blaming, but an unfair burden to place on abuse victims simply because the abuser died.

When my clients experience the death of someone who harmed them, whether it was a family member, partner, or anyone else, they often experience what I refer to as the trauma trifecta: there is often an initial sense of relief, followed by a feeling of guilt for feeling this relief, and they also often feel sadness—often for the loss of what could have been had the person not been abusive. Often there is a feeling of sadness or of having missed out on what could have been, coupled with confusion as to why you are feeling sad when someone was abusive to you.

It is very common for survivors to gaslight themselves, saying things such as "well maybe it wasn't that bad," "maybe we could have been...," "if only..." as they reflect back on a relationship that caused them pain. When my clients get into this trap, I tell them to slow down, and acknowledge the feelings, while reminding themself to honor the validity of their experience. They do not owe anything to anyone, including denial of their truth.

You can have more than one feeling at the same time, and that is okay, as "grief is not a state, but rather a process" (Zisook & Shear, 2009).

When you notice a sense of guilt, remember that this does not mean there's anything wrong with you, or that you are remembering things wrong. Guilt is a natural reaction for survivors, and many times simply acknowledging and validating its existence can be freeing. Guilt does not invalidate your experience. It is okay to feel a range of different emotions during this time. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief—especially the death of someone who was harmful towards you.

"It is important to not compare your emotions and grief to other victims of abuse or any other individual. Any feeling following the death of an abuser is reasonable, even if it may feel as though you are being un-reasonable or irrational." (Criminal Injuries Helpline 2021).

If you are struggling with feelings after a loss, and are looking for support to manage, seek the support from a licensed therapist in your area. Check the Psychology Today Directory.


Counselling Directory. (2022) Bereavement: Grieving the Death of an Abuser.…

Criminal Injuries Helpline. (2021). Coping with Feelings and Trauma When an Abuser Dies.….

Zisook S, Shear K. (2009) Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry. Jun;8(2):67-74.

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