Incest: Stages of Grief and Recovery

13 Sep

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!

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6 Responses to “Incest: Stages of Grief and Recovery”

  1. Chris Shea March 8, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    There are some cases where the non-offending parent IS at fault. When the initial disbelief hardens into outright denial, and the non-offending parent does nothing to protect the child — in fact continues to expose the child to the incestuous parent — then both parents are at fault. The child has been betrayed by both of them. I know a young woman this happened to and, believe me, the hurt done by the non-believing mother was almost as great as that by the molesting father. If the mother had believed, YEARS of molestation could have been prevented. Instead the little girl, who was living in an isolated rural area, grew up thinking no one would ever believe her, since her own mother didn’t.

    • jordanssite April 15, 2013 at 9:21 pm #

      I can hear your caring for this woman. You’re right, a child is betrayed and further traumatized when a parent doesn’t believe the child. A child loses both parents. And, yes, often the victim feels no one will believe. In this case, a child endures grief, pain, trauma and betrayal by both parents. Sadly, even when a parent believes, often the abuse does not stop nor prosecuted. I agree the innocent parent is responsible for not believing. There are a multitude of reasons for a mother’s denial, many rooted in stigmatization, blame and fear. Perpetrators are solely responsible for their actions. My heart goes out to this child you knew who was violated and had the courage to tell and wasn’t believed and endured continued sexual abuse. Thank you for speaking up for her and her experience.

  2. Lou Davis July 25, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    I just came across your article and appreciate you posting such a moving story.

  3. Vivian Walker August 7, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

    We blame our mothers because of course she must have known. Mom knows everything right? I know my children think I not only know everything but can Do anything. I felt this way about the different mothers I had in my childhood. Surely they must know what dad/uncle/brother/cousin/auntie is doing. They know and they just don’t care. I’ve held fierce hate in my heart for my mom(s) I’ve always been convinced that of course they each knew. But now I have to re-think this.. Because I am a mom and I didn’t know. I didn’t know and my children don’t remember. It took my 3 year old grand daughter saying she doesn’t want to see grandpa any more cause he hurts her in the bathtub. There is no physical evidence, the doctor found nothing. Of course grandpa has his perfect cover story. And the authority’s have nothing to make a case from. But my daughter and I we both believe our 3 year old, we just KNOW it is the truth. And I look back and see things so differently things I never could make sense from now are clear and he tells his stories but it is now to late to believe anything he says anymore. The blinders have been ripped off and the truth exposed. And all we can do is tell everyone and live with our guilt. I mean come we are all mothers and we should have known….right
    vivianwalker.wordpress.com

    • jordanssite August 14, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

      Our culture perpetuates the myth that mothers know everything and are responsible for everything that happens in the home. That isn’t true especially in the case of incest. Pepetrators are manipulative, cunning and threaten victims. Consequently victims are afraid to tell out of fear; fear of the perpetrator and fear of destroying the family. Victims usually blame their mother for not protecting them, believing she “must have known” which then allows victims to justify unleasing their rage and blame on their mother. Victims can’t, for many reason, levy their anger on the perpetrator so they rage at the closest person to them, their mother. It’s a cruel, harsh reality about incest and not fair. Our culture perpetuates this myth that “all mothers must have known” Mothers are NOT the perpetrators. It is not our fault. We are secondary victims. In truth, less than 20% KNOW. Symptoms of incest are vague and subtle and hard to prove as you’ve discovered. Trust your KNNOWING now and listen to your gut instincts. Sometimes distance is required to gain perspective which sounds like what happened to you. Yes, guilt is a product of incest yet you can choose to heal from guilt and let it go, accept that you aren’t all-knowing. Incest is hard to detect. But now you are protecting your granddaughter. You did the best you could do and now you are doing the best you can do.

  4. B.G. August 29, 2018 at 7:48 am #

    Looking back I am horrified at the rage and blame I placed on my mother. I believed she always knew what my father, her husband, did to me for years. My Dad had BPD and NPD accompanied by several addictions. My mother coped long before I was born by copious use of dissociation. But I didn’t understand my parents situation until I was 52. I truly believed on many levels that Mom was fully “present” during the sexual abuses, and therefore the only answers to the questions “why didn’t she love me enough to protect me from what was obviously happening right around her?” and “why did she chose him over her own little daughter?” were that #1)she was COMPLICIT in his sexually abusing me, #2)she was lying when she said she loved me for all these years, and/or that #3)she was weak and wouldnt stand up to him. But the issue was not that simple. She got married in 1948 in North Carolina. Unfortunately, women were basically stuck with their choice of husband back then, by societal, cultural and religious norms. . .and financial constraints. My only aunt on both sides of my family-of-origin who found the courage to leave a dysfunctional marriage was ostracized in the 1970s. “Me Too” was only an unreachable dream at most. Mom stuck by her man, caretaking him until he died of diseases secondary to his addictions on their 51st wedding anniversary, 8 years after I disclosed to her long-distance by phone. I was crushed by her response and lack of acceptance, falling into deep depression, anxiety attacks, almost paralyzed by grief and abandonment. After my first flashback at 25, I turned to drug abuse to cope, and my life fell apart. Mom has Alzheimer’s today, I believe because of the hell he put her through and isolating her from friends and family most of their marriage. I have learned that is common of Borderline husbands to do to their kids and wives. The only outlet she had left was in her church, who urged her to remain living with her abuser, giving him his patriarchal authority to treat us however he willed. After his death, it has taken me 18 years to see her not as an abuser, but as an unwilling victim, and to feel true enduring compassion, love, pity and gratefulness that she didn’t physically abandon my brother and me, leaving us alone with him without her to buffer us from his abuse as she attempted to do during our entire childhood. Stress destroyed her body and mind and crushed her spirit. My rage and blame is turning into love, understanding and forgiveness today. In her shoes, I probably would have run away, hurt him or myself in order to make him stop hurting me. SHE CHOSE NOT TO DO THESE TO MY BROTHER AND ME. She never was able to work the recovery process, and I live in a time where recovery is not only possible but help is readily accessible. I am mourning the relationship she and I were supposed to have that he stole from us. The PTSD drug Prazocin and therapy are changing my life, and I can much better see my experiences realistically for what they were, step away from childlike idealization of my parents and see them for who they really are, in the process of forgiveness with empathy for both of them, and love. I can’t fix her situation now, and this really saddens me. . .

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