INCEST: Stages of Grief and Recovery
The stages of grief when incest is disclosed vary from other types of tragedies–in part due to the horrendous nature of the crime and is committed by a family member. Intervention incrases the trauma to mothers.
Mothers are referred to as “hidden victims” and, as such, usually do not receive the supportive services and therapy victims receive. The family structure may be broken. Agencies intervene increasing the truama and stress. Prosecution or lack of prosecution impacts the grief and recovery. The emotional and behavioral impact on the victim and siblings are a factor. Grief and recovery can resemble a roller coaster ride. Incidents may create triggers that resurrect the initial emotions with the same intensity as when they first happened.
Shock was my first reaction when my daughter’s therapist disclosed the incest. I felt like a nuclear bomb dropped in my lap. Time stopped. The meaning of incest didn’t register. It was too horrendous to absorb. Questions rattled around in my mind. Who could have sexually abused her? What happened? When? Where? As moments passed, I sat motionless, speachless–in shock–while the room moved in and out like an accordion.
Emotional numbing often follows shock. Fear can cause emotionally numbing; fear that a flood of painful emotions will kill you or that you will become hysterical or that you might suffer a mental collaspe. Numbing can manifest as paralysis—impaired thinking, inability to make decisions; can’t get out of bed; can’t feel emotions; or can’t function. The world you knew prior to the incest has crumbled. Life may feel unreal like being stuck between two worlds–the world you can never go back to and the world that lies in the future, beyond the tragedy.
Confusion is common. Thoughts such as: What do you mean, incested? That couldn’t have happened. I would have known. Who would have incested her? How could I miss something like that? When a tragedy occurs, at first it is unbelievable. It is difficult to comprehend.
Denial can be a result of fear of the repercussions to the perpetrator and family. Adhering to these beliefs make it difficult to move beyond denial to believing the victim. Moving through fear requires support and reassurance. Mothers particularly need assurance that it isn’t their fault. Moving past denial is a process. Immediately, find support before shutting the door on believing the victim. It is important not to express immediate thoughts of disbelief to the victim. It takes incredible courage for the victim “to tell.”
In some cases you may feel sympathy or concern for the perpetrator (partner or child) particularly the fear they may go to jail or prison. The heart doesn’t immediately close the door on concern or love for a family member. Coming to terms with the fact someone you love has sexually abused your child is a process requiring time and support. Everything you thought or believed about that person is challenged.
Denial or disbelief is usually automatic. The reality and the consequences to your life and family cut the heart like a knife so it is easier to disbelieve. I was no exception. Unconsciously, I didn’t shut the door on the possibility my daughter had been sexually abused. Instead, I allowed that it may have happened. Although denial hadn’t cemented itself in my mind, I didn’t immediately accept that my daughter had been incested. What I didn’t do was blurt out what I was really thinking. “This couldn’t be true. You’re mistaken. I would have known.” When I was able to speak, I hesitatingly asked questions of the therapist. “How do you know for certain? Why didn’t she tell me? Wouldn’t I have known?” The therapist’s answers seemed shrouded in dense fog but I allowed that her answers might be true.
Self-Blame is a common response, followed by shame and guilt. What did I miss? How could this happen without my knowledge? Why didn’t she tell me? It’s my fault this happened to my child. Often those thought are accompanied by shame; the shame associated with incest. Incest is the ultimate taboo. Often thoughts such as I’m a bad mother; no one can know; I just want it to go away; it can’t be true follow; what will people think of me. You may want to hide. A physical reaction such as nausea can overcome you. If the perpetrator is your partner, the ball game changes. The idea that your partner engaged in sexual acts or was intimate with your child is a horror that defies any reality. A parent can feel dirty. Beliefs about the relationship crumble. Trust rushes out the window. A thousand other thoughts race through your mind like a ticker tape. Often your partner is immediately removed from your home leaving behind a huge emotional and financial void for both you and your children. Life as you knew it is shattered.
The single most important words I can say to an innocent parent after disclosure is, “IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU ARE NOT THE PERPETRATOR.” It doesn’t matter if you have personal issues; if you have made mistakes as a parent; if you drink too much; if you spanked your child; if you are not a perfect parent; if you have emotional problems; if you didn’t have sex with your partner. You did not cause, participate or invite the perpetrator to sexually abuse your child and you did not commit the acts of sexual abuse to the victim. Seven years after disclosure, I still struggled with blaming myself. After intensive therapy, eventually I was able to truly believe it wasn’t my fault.
During that first year, I didn’t experience the common stages of grief. I remained numb to the rage and grief. I buried my feelings in a deep cavern because I believed if I allowed them to surface they would literally kill me or I would suffer a meltdown. So, I remained numb. I functioned each day and, to the outer world, no one suspected what lived inside me–crushing grief.
Anger surfaces at varying and reoccurring times. Anger can manifest as boiling rage at the perpetrator. Anger is caused by deep wounds. Anger can be the fuel that gets you out of bed each day. All your energy can be focused on punishing the perpetrator; maybe wanting to kill them. Anger may subside and resurface with the same intensity as when the incest was first disclosed. A trigger can revive the anger. Examples of triggers are when a perpetrator goes to trial; if a perpetrator isn’t prosecuted; when a perpetrator comes up for parole; when a perpetrator is taken off the sexual offender list; hearing the victim recount the acts; watching the affect on the victim; if the victim wants to reconnect with the perpetrator. Anger can consume you. Many people get stuck in anger and rage as they become constant companions. Healing comes from within not from outside you. Whether a perpetrator is prosecuted or not, does not have to impact healing. My son was never prosecuted but I realized that he would always have control over my life if I didn’t find a way to heal.
Relief may follow disclosure. In cases where a child is acting out or has a sudden shift in behavior that is unexplainable or you’ve noticed behavior between the perpetrator and victim that makes you feel uncomfortable, disclosure can be an A-ha moment like “This is what caused the behavior change. This is why I was felt uncomfortable with certain behaviors I witnessed.” As a parent you may have searched for explanations for the behavior change without a solution. After disclosure, all the tumblers fall into place and you understand what has precipitated the behavior changes or confirms that knot in your stomach. My daughter had a sudden shift in her behavior when she turned thirteen. She was congenial, well-behavior gregarious and had a smile that lit up the world when suddenly she became hostile, anger, violent and enraged without provocation. In the days following disclosure, I understood the source of the extreme changes. While there was relief, an overwhelming crushing sadness smothered me. It was a dual-edged sword.
Every one of the reactions occur with incredible intensity and can occur repeatedly.
Grief comes from the betrayal of trust, the loss of love, and the obliteration of the future you envisioned. Grief comes from having your child’s innocence stolen and you can never give it back. Grief comes from the knowledge that your child has been violated in the most horrible way possible. When a parent fully comprehends the violation and devastation to their child, the depth of their loss and their anger can deepen into rage, despair and depression. I couldn’t think about the actual acts my son may have committed to my daughter because, if I did, I believed I would lose my mind, kill him, or go insane. If a parent remains in the stage of grief, their chances for full recovery are slim.
Each of these stages can make denial appealing. In reality, denial is never a better option. In the long-term you suffer immensely from denying and burying the truth. Disbelieving the victim usually results in alienation from your child which causes pain and suffering that can last a lifetime. Reach out and get help before you settle on denial as an option.
Finding a turning point toward healing requires support: a place where you are fully accepted without judgment or blame; a place where you can talk about the range of emotions. Healing requires accepting what you cannot change. You can never undo what has been done. Forgiveness comes in its own time or it may never come. People may say you have to forgive but you never forget. My belief is that you do not have to forgive. Acceptance is more important. Accepting incest has happened and your life will never be the same doesn’t mean giving in to despair. It opens the door for healing and rebuilding. Trust may take a long time to be repaired. You can move forward and find a new life. People who heal successfully usually reinforce their own inner resources with some belief or meaning beyond themselves. For me it was the knowledge that it wasn’t my fault and realizing my passion of helping other mothers.
Building a new foundation for a life after the incest of your child is a step-by-step process. The stages of grief and recovery gained incrementally and slowly. They are relatively predictable. The best news is that we can navigate these stages and arrive safely on the other side of this life tragedy—building a new life after the incest of a child. There is HOPE!