Content Warning: Abuse
We hear it, see it, and read it all the time in the grief space. The notion that grief equals love.
The articles. The quotes. The Instagram posts.
“Grief is just love with no place to go.” -Jamie Anderson
“Where there is deep grief there was great love.”-Unknown
“Grief lasts as long as love lasts.”- Megan Devine
“The more you loved the harder you grieve.” –Unknown
“Grief is the price we pay for love.” –Queen Elizabeth II
Sometimes, I resonate with the sentiment.
Sometimes, it really misses the mark.
The distillation of grief-equals-love excludes a multitude of lived grief experiences. Ones where love was not a cornerstone. Ones where there was no love lost. Ones where love was not only absent, but where abuse and trauma were centered.
What then, is grief, when you didn’t love the person tied to said grief?
It’s a rhetorical question.
The word grief has roots in the Latin gravis meaning heavy or grave. It has roots in the Old French gravare meaning burden. Grief, as in grievance, is something believed to be wrong or unfair. Grief can also be trouble or annoyance as in, “they caused such grief.” And, some folks do, don’t they?
There is an abundance of language around, “your loved one” in the death-sphere.
Funeral homes, hospices, and grief groups use it. Death Doulas, Home Funeral Guides, and Celebrants use it. Until recently my own website made mention of “loved one” (the dead,) and “loved ones” (the bereaved,) in many places.
It’s terminology that has, unfortunately, gone largely unexamined.
A conversation came up late last year with a fellow board member at the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA) around use of, “loved one,” and, “acts of love,” in home funeral messaging. I could immediately relate to just how not inclusive the language was, bringing to mind how good the end-of-life and funeral worlds are at softening language and using buzz words like beauty, healing, transition, and yes, even love.
Just because I understand that messages of love/loved ones aren’t inclusive doesn’t mean that I didn’t also experience a very visceral reaction to deleting “loved one” from my own website, over and over, to replace it with more neutral language. Removing mention of love in so many places was genuinely disheartening. It felt like an erasure OF love.
Quite frankly, I was pissed. Super pissed, really, that so many of my fellow human beings (and I) have been in relationships where love was hollow, conditional, manipulated, complicated, or altogether absent.
I grieved the fact that folks coming to my website, or that of the NHFA, might be caring for a dying person, or someone that’d already died, that they didn’t love, and/or that didn’t love them in the ways we think humans should.
So then, again, what is grief in the absence (or severe lack) of love?
Some definitions of grief highlight that grief lives where, “a bond or affection was formed.”
We grieve bonds to familiarity, routine, perceived security, and normalcy. Think about, for example, grieving a job that you didn’t even like, or retiring from a career you hated for a number of decades only to be shocked at how sad you are about it! Wrapped up in that grief may be loss of identity, stability, familiarity, and relationships.
On the identity front, I’ve had many a crisis of, “Who am I if not my father’s wounded child? Who am I if not his victim?”
Most simply put, grief is a response to loss. Regardless of love. Regardless of bond. Regardless of affection.
I asked a few groups of folks what their thoughts were on this matter of grieving an abuser. Many who offered up their candid, deeply personal thoughts granted me permission to share them here with you, for which I am grateful.*
Some admitted to not grieving at all for those they didn’t love, or that didn’t love them. They were numb. Unaffected. Interestingly enough, this particular scenario actually fits the narrative quite well that if grief equals love and you didn’t love someone, you may not grieve. In not grieving, some folks experienced guilt. They felt bad for not grieving.
Some had already grieved before the person died. Something to which I could relate. After all, there are lines in a poem I wrote for my deceased father that quite literally read,
We grieved our loss of you
a long time ago
In many ways
you were dead to us already
and that sounds harsh
Many, many folks shared their relief at the death because the decedent could no longer harm them, or others. Freedom from future traumas.
Some wondered if grief would hit them someday down the road. If somehow having not felt anything meant they were actually suppressing feelings that might surface later.
If they did experience grief, some mentioned that it seemed tied more to feeling sorry for others that were grieving. “I felt bad for my dad, aunts, and uncles because of their pain.”
Some shared that their grief seemed more in relation to secondary losses. “Grandma was abusive but she was the person that kept the family coming together for holidays and I didn’t know when I would see my cousins again after she died because she was the family glue.” For some there was shock at how much a secondary loss, like the sale of their childhood home, hurt despite the abuses that occurred within its walls.
For some, it was grief that they never got justice, or an apology. Grief that nothing more would ever come of the relationship. “When he died I did cry, and was a bit distraught, because there was no chance we’d ever have a real relationship.”
Grief that there would never be any closure around the “why” of the abuse, as if that would make the “what” hurt any less.
Sometimes there’s a crisis around the wondering about how, if it hurts this bad to lose someone you didn’t love, what the hell it’s going to feel like when you lose the folks you do love?
Some people were shocked to find themselves grieving someone they’d never even met, say for example, an absent biological parent. Grieving what they never had. Many of us grieved what we didn’t get. I know that’s been the bulk of my grief surrounding my father’s death. It was just as much, if not more, about what was missing. Grieving what could have been. Grieving that my father’s traumas and addictions won out. Grieving that he was estranged from most of his children, step-children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. That he’d essentially pissed us all away. Grieving that he must have been scared as he struggled to dial 911, dying in an alley in downtown Denver. Grieving how scary he was to us. A bone-deep fear still embedded in our nervous systems. There is, to this day, both grief and shame wrapped up in my hesitance, my wavering, my resistance even, to hold space for his humanity.
I, at twenty-seven years old, stood over his dead body at the hospital and I yelled at him.
I hadn’t seen nor spoken to him in years. It was finally my turn to talk. Without interruption. His narcissism no longer a living thing. My turn to speak, free from the risk of being hit with the cruelest of words that rolled so easily off his tongue. Words that cut so, so deep.
I yelled, and I yelled. All the hurts came rushing back. All the wounded bits of me that had been stuffed into deep little pockets. All the memories. All the trauma. All the pain. In all the nooks and crannies. Surfacing with a vengeance.
Later, I grieved when church goers spoke highly of him. I wanted to yell at them, too! “Don’t you know what he did to us?”
Others could relate to this kind of grief. The kind where you are livid, or simply fall to bits because others had an experience of the person as thoughtful and kind, whereas your experience with the very same person was one of pain and vitriol. “Why did his co-workers get love and respect and I didn’t?”
Then, there is the disenfranchised grief piece in all of this. Disenfranchised grief is grief that is minimized by others and therefore goes unacknowledged and unsupported. What that looks like when you’re grieving the death of an abuser might be folks questioning why you are grieving at all. Just because I hadn’t spoken to my father in years didn’t meant that his death hadn’t rocked my world. In fact, it was probably the most I’d ever hurt in relation to his existence, and our relationship, because I was feeling a lifetime of hurt all at once. My best friend quite literally didn’t show up. There you are, not knowing how to feel, wondering why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, feeling ALL the feelings, and others are going, “What’s the big deal? You were estranged!”
Worse still, there are those that have suffered in silence, break that silence once the abuser dies, and are met with disbelief. “I tried to tell my mother about my husband’s abuses and she didn’t believe me. She scolded me for lying, asking ‘how could you?’ Her upstanding son-in-law could do no wrong in her eyes. It was ‘blasphemy.’ I’d forgotten I’d kept some letters he’d written me after some of the incidents, apologizing. I found them later in a box in the closet, copied them, and sent them to my mother who I hadn’t spoken to since her attack on me when I needed her most.” Another person shared, “they had the nerve to tell me ‘of course you’d wait to disclose this when they aren’t here to defend themselves,’ never mind that them being gone was the only reason I finally felt safe enough to share.’”
Some shared deep sorrow around time wasted with the abuser. “My grandfather regretted spending so many decades of his one human life with my grandmother because she was horrible to him. He just kept saying ‘Now my life is almost over.’”
So why do people stay? It’s an age old question and it’s been examined and answered many a way. Why might someone be caregiving for a dying abuser? Why might they have a home funeral for them? Obligation? Cost-savings? Because no one else is going to do it? Because it feels like there is no other way? Because family dynamics have normalized living with abuse? Because of trauma bonding? Because they’re holding out hope for a death bed apology or some other semblance of closure? Because they were called on as next of kin despite not having spoken to the abuser in years? It could be any or all of these. It could be none of them at all. Analytics don’t matter much in the face of immediacy.
We can grieve just about anything, including how many people are out there that can relate to this topic.
Emotions are emotions. Feelings are feelings. Sometimes emotion strikes before our conscious brain has even begun to sort out what in particular triggered the emotional response. Sometimes, we pick our feelings apart. We peel back the layers to see what’s underneath. Sometimes we find that, as my therapist says, we’re having a “thinking” not a feeling. And, while we may be compelled from time to time to analyze emotions, thoughts, and feelings, can they not just also be what they are?
Can our grief just be what it is?
While there are certainly a bazillion losses tied deeply to love, that’s not the only narrative.
We can hold space for grief rooted in love, and grief that just simply isn’t.
Your grief, or lack thereof, needs no explaining.
Conflated though it may be, grief doesn’t equal love.
It equals grief.
*Stories shared with permission and anonymity.