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What It’s Like to Grieve an Abusive Relationship

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What is missing from the conversation on abuse and ending relationships is the honest reality of grief. Just because someone hurt you doesn’t mean you don’t miss them. The loss of a bad relationship is still a loss. With this loss comes grief: a conflicting, exhausting, ugly grief.

I write this at the end of a close but abusive friendship. As is often the case with emotional abuse, the full extent was not apparent until after the fact. I wasn’t prepared for the self-reckoning that would follow.

The first few days after the brutal end of our friendship were an emotional roller coaster. I have never taken a mental health day for my anxiety, PTSD or any of the other issues I struggle with. But when this friendship ended I took two and then promptly booked myself in for grief therapy. I knew to come out whole on the other side of this relationship, I needed help. It has been three months, and I’m finally starting to find my own strength again. Below are some of the major takeaways from my experience.

1. The stages of grief are cyclical.

This is true of all grief but especially important to keep in mind when you’re grieving an abusive relationship. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance will come and go. Sometimes several times a day. There’s nothing wrong with you if you feel like you’ve reached acceptance and then suddenly find yourself crying on public transportation.

2. The fear

The fear took me most by surprise. After this relationship, I was afraid to go places and to live my life. I was afraid I’d pass her on the street or she would materialize on the junk food aisle and see me buying three packs of Double Stuf Oreos. She felt inescapable. That fear is the abuse talking. You owe the person nothing. Be smart, but don’t avoid life because you are afraid. Therapy was really helpful in coping with this one.

3. Hindsight can be painful.

This primarily applies to emotional abuse. There’s a good chance you won’t realize how toxic this person was until it’s over. Now when you look back, you may see all the red flags of abuse, the subtle ways you were being manipulated and the times you ignored it. Try not to be too hard on yourself. It is not in your power to change the past, but it is in your power to learn from it. Remember those signs.

4. You may miss them.

My ex-best friend was an important part of my life. I loved her and cared about her. That does not simply fade away because the relationship ends. Even in abusive relationships, there can be good times. I cannot emphasize this enough: it is OK to have enjoyed your time with this person. To remember the time you stayed up all night watching your favorite movie or gorging yourselves on your favorite food. It is OK to miss those things. Try not to judge your feelings. Have compassion for yourself.

5. Beware of social media.

Ending relationships in 2018 is hard. Technology has made our lives interconnected in so many ways. Untangling it all can be difficult. I made the mistake of trying to remain friends on social media with this person until I realized she was using, removing and blocking features to continue to exert control over me. To manipulate me. To continue the pattern of abuse. Take stock of all the ways you’re connected online, and don’t be afraid to cut ties. It can be sad to let go, but you need to protect yourself first.

6. Engage in life.

Grief can be all-consuming, which is dangerous when it comes to abuse. Don’t let grieving be your only activity. Fill your life with other meaningful things. Actively engage in other relationships. Take up a new hobby or sport. Spend time doing the things that bring you joy.

7. The things left unsaid

When I finally started to feel my own strength again, it was too late to go back and tell her how much she’d hurt me. How abusive she had been. Thoughts of anger and regret became my inner monologue. I had so much left to say and no way to say it. No way to stand up for myself. Coping with this can be difficult. Reaching out is usually not a good idea, but there are other ways to get those feelings out. Write one or many angry letters. Make a playlist of music that says how you feel, and name it something empowering. As with most things, these emotions fade with time.

8. Rebuilding

It can be easy to lose yourself in an abusive relationship. When it’s over, you may question who you are without that person. Being free from abuse for the first time can feel disorienting. Take the time to find yourself again. Try something new. Take risks. This is your time to rebuild.

I am not an expert, but I have been through it and come out the other side. If you’ve been through an abusive relationship, know you are enough. You are deserving. You are strong. Grief doesn’t make you weak. Grief isn’t rational, straightforward or even fair. My advice is to start by being kind to yourself and work from there.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Originally published: December 6, 2018
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