I was raised in part by my grandparents in a violent, alcoholic, abusive home. When my grandfather died (sexual and physical abuser) 4 years ago, I felt relief and thought I moved on with my life. I don’t remember feeling much else.
Two weeks ago, my grandmother died, who I loved deeply. She was more of a mother to me than my own, despite the fact that she had been a chronic alcoholic. My grandmother was at times my protector, but more often than not, I was the protector of her and my younger brother. Since she died, I have felt overwhelmed by a huge number of different emotions; anger, sorrow, confusion, but mostly guilt. I am having a hard time sorting out what the emotions are and who they are tied to… it seems like my entire past is being pulled violently to the surface.
Is it normal that emotions like guilt come up so strongly after someone dies? I feel guilty that she stayed in an abusive marriage for our sake. I feel guilty that I could never protect her adequately when I was young, that I ran from home at 17 (am now 41) and could rarely cope with returning so I left her, and then after he died, I still could not make up for so much lost time in only 4 short years. I couldn’t even protect her as an adult. I feel guilty that I kept all of the sick secrets with the abuse I suffered and the abuse I saw her go through. I feel guilty that I was not there enough. I feel guilty for being an additional worry to her as I went through my own struggles with addiction, homelessness and abusive relationships.
Is it normal that I am now starting to have all of these emotions associated to my past arise, such as guilt and anger? That I am dealing with flashbacks and nightmares and anxiety now? Why wouldn’t they come up after he died? How do I sort through them without trying to numb them all out?
Grieving in pain
I sincerely recognize the pain of losing a surrogate mother. I appreciate the deep level of courage and trust it took to share these experiences. I think that is the first thing to recognize, the level of progress you’ve made in your capacity to open up and allow this darkness to be brought out into the light. Many of us who have survived childhood sexual assault and physical abuse keep our stories locked deep inside of ourselves. Then we judge ourselves for self medicating to deal with the pain that would otherwise have destroyed us. Unfortunately, as you discovered, trauma and addiction often go hand in hand. There comes a day when no substance can adequately numb the pain. When that day comes we are unable to stop using, because the cycle of addiction has already taken hold of our lives.
In order to survive the horror of abuse it is often the case that we have to disassociate from the reality where we are being abused. For many of us this manifests in trying to gain control over something, when we feel so powerless over what is happening to our bodies and in our environments. We choose something else to focus on, something else to care for. You wanted safety…for someone. Since you could not be safe yourself, you focused on your grandmother and brother’s safety. Your grandfather dying felt like a relief as this stress of disassociating to protect your grandmother and brother was no longer there. It is absolutely normal to have these feelings.
Now you might think, “But I suffer from the guilt of leaving her with him when I was 17!” That is a different issue. That is called survivor’s guilt. I am terribly familiar with this guilt. Most of us, regardless of how many years it has been since we left the abuse, will still have lingering guilt if we left someone behind in our journey to save ourselves. The point of healing is not that the past is erased or that the feelings don’t exist, but rather that we are able to cope with them in a healthy way. I feel that is the first stage of healing. How do I live with these feelings without acting out or abusing substances?
What you are doing right now is the first stage of processing the emotions and trauma from the past: Telling Your Story. I can not emphasize enough the power of vocalizing the pain. Transferring what is rotting you from the inside and exposing it is paramount to healing. The means of getting it out can take many forms, and this is part of the beauty of the journey. Discover what way is best for you! You can personalize your healing journey. Ask yourself: How do I want to express this pain in a safe way?
There are an infinite number of ways that you can safely express anger, confusion, guilt, and pain when healing from abuse and loss. Catharsis is a cleansing process, like cauterizing a wound. Here are a list of examples to support you in finding your pathway:
1. Write a letter to your abuser and share it with a safe person. Afterwards destroy it in a way that resonates for you.
2. Write a letter to those you had to leave behind when you took the journey of saving your life. You can choose to share it with a safe person, with the people themselves, or do something special with it. Some people choose to bury it, burn it, put it in a God Box, etc.
3. Break old glass or dishes in a safe place. Before hand you could write on the glass with a permanent marker all of the the incidences of pain and guilt that are inside of you.
4. Create a painting, drawing or sculpture expressing the feelings you are carrying inside.
5. Freely move and dance – Physically express the emotions.
6. Confide and process your pain with a therapist, sponsor, spiritual mentor, or close confidante.
7. Use a pillow like a baseball bat and scream, growl, and rage out your anger while hitting the pillow against something stable.
8. Scream. Unlocking your imprisoned screams is a powerful tool!
9. Destroy old momentos of your abuser. Release yourself from being a curator of pain.
I send you blessings on your journey of catharsis and grief. If you have any questions, or need clarification on any of the points do not hesitate to ask. You are not alone on this journey!