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Home / Articles / Ask Amanda / Ask Amanda: How Do I Deal With an Abuser's Death?

Ask Amanda: How Do I Deal With an Abuser's Death?

Grieving—or not grieving—an abuser's death can be a tricky mix of emotions

  • By
  • Jul 10, 2023
Ask Amanda: How Do I Deal With an Abuser's Death?

Q: I was married for four years to an abusive husband and just got out last year. A few weeks ago, he died of a heart attack. We didn’t have any children together, so I wasn’t tied to him, but I still feel weirdly sad. This guy was so mean to me. He controlled everything I did. He stalked me after we split up, and I was afraid he was never going to leave me alone. I was even in fear for my life. So I also feel a little bit relieved, but then I feel bad about that. I can’t be the only one to not know how to feel after this.

A: I guarantee you’re not. When someone passes away, no matter what your relationship with them was like, there can be a wide range of emotions. Death is complicated. It can bring with it a rush of feelings as well as memories of that person from our past, both good and bad. As a result, we tend to judge our reaction to a death harshly—am I mourning in the right way? Am I sad enough? Am I too sad?

I would guess that many survivors of abuse feel the way you do—a mixture of sadness and perhaps peace that his abuse is truly over. You also mentioned guilt for feeling any kind of relief. I doubt you’re happy their life came to an end, but rather feel a respite from the abuse that was relentless for four-plus years. 

You could also be replaying the memories you have of when things weren’t bad. As most abuse survivors know, an abuser’s torment is hardly ever constant. Sprinkled into the power and control dynamic can be occasional “honeymoon stages” filled with love-bombing, promises of change and even weeks or months of you believing that things were going to be different this time. 

Clinical psychologist Aura De Los Santos explains that after an abuser dies, this mixture of feelings is normal. “The abused person feels a sense of relief that they will no longer be a victim of abuse of the person who died, but at the same time misses them for a variety of reasons. They may focus on the beautiful moments and promises their abusive partner made to them. At the moment of loss, they suffer from remembering this.”

De Los Santos says there is an illusion of what could have been that may play on repeat in your thoughts. If you find yourself thinking, If only he had changed, maybe we would have had a completely different life, know that this is normal. Unfortunately, it’s also a fantasy. You could never have forced this person to change; they had to make that decision on their own, which they didn’t. 

“The survivor could think about what would have happened if the abuser were alive and had changed… During the mourning process the victim may feel sadness because the person is gone, but at the same time feels confused thinking about why they had to suffer all this mistreatment.”

The “if only”s aren’t a productive loop to get into. What you may need to do is find closure, however that may look. This is the end of a horrific chapter of your life. 

When a friend of mine’s abusive father passed away, she was left in charge of cleaning out his house. She had to walk back into a place where much of her childhood trauma had occurred and sort through things that reminded her of the man who abused her. It was brutal. But she felt like it would bring her closure. She said the days she spent crying, mourning both his death and loss of what could have been, was cathartic. In a compressed amount of time, she was able to release some emotions that she had stored deep inside her. Beyond that, she said his empty house represented the fact that he was truly gone. 

Some survivors might feel like their PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, ramps up after an abuser’s death. This, too, is normal. You may experience sudden outbursts of anger or you may feel numb. The abuser’s death could trigger memories that then replay as flashbacks in your mind. This could cause additional anxiety or depression. This is where finding some kind of closure, however that might look, can help.

As improbable as it sounds, many survivors still have a fear that an abusive partner’s death is just their last attempt at gaslighting, as though it’s not real and they’ll come back to torment them again, horror-movie style. Closure for you might mean visiting the person’s gravesite, speaking to one of the abuser’s family members, reading their obituary—none of which has to occur right away. It can be months later, but it may help you find some finality to this chapter of your life. 

You might be surprised to find you “get over” this person’s passing fairly quickly. But don’t be surprised if feelings resurface at random times for months or years to come. There is no set timeline on letting someone go. If symptoms of PTSD persist, however, you may want to consider talking to a counselor. Therapy methods that have been shown to alleviate PTSD symptoms include EMDR and CBT, or cognitive behavior therapy.

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“Relief can be accompanied by guilt, especially if societal expectations or personal beliefs suggest that you should mourn their passing traditionally,” says Lachlan Brown, an expert in behavioral psychology and relationships, and the founder of Hack Spirit, a popular site focused on accessible relationship advice and personal development. “It's crucial to understand that relief doesn't signify that you wished them harm, rather it signifies your human instinct for safety and peace.” 

Reach out to supportive friends, family or a domestic violence advocate who can help you process some of these feelings, suggests Brown. Seeking therapy at this time might also be beneficial, or you may consider joining a grief support group

“Remember, there's no right or wrong way to feel in such circumstances,” he adds. “It's okay to feel relief, guilt, sadness, confusion or anything else. It's essential to process these feelings and give yourself the space and time to heal.”

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Ask Amanda is meant to offer helpful resources and information about domestic violence. If in crisis, please reach out to your nearest domestic violence shelter for the guidance of a trained advocate.