Often when we think of grief and loss, we associate it with the loss of a loved one. The five stages of grief are not necessarily what one thinks of in response to a sexual trauma but often survivors will report going through the stages at some point. While the stages of grief around trauma are not necessarily linear in that people can go back and forth between stages, it can be helpful to know the stages in order to understand them if they do come up.
The Stages of Grief
Denial: This stage is often the first stage in surviving the loss or assault. People may report feeling in a state of shock or numbness. Denial can act as our brains way of sorting information and only taking in as much as we can handle at the given time. People may report trying to do anything they can to simply get through the day. I’ve had clients report staying in this stage for decades while other experience this stage rather quickly. Denial can be a huge factor with childhood sexual abuse as often there is grooming and manipulation that leads survivors to feel complex emotions. As denial begins to fade, all sorts of emotions may surface.
Anger: Trauma survivors can have complex feelings toward anger. Often, when someone has had violence used against them, the very thought of acknowledging anger can lead them into a full on panic. Sometimes survivors may feel that if they allow themselves to be angry, it will never go away. I always share with people that by acknowledging and experiencing the anger, we are able to allow it to move through us and dissipate. It is by repressing it and not acknowledging it that anger can become problematic. Anger is an essential and appropriate human reaction that is grounded in our survival response. It can be a very powerful emotion which can frighten people but it is essential in healing. Often people find that they are more comfortable suppressing anger than experiencing it but only through experiencing it can we learn to incorporate it and understand it rather than fear it. Survivors may find themselves angry at their perpetrator, their friends and family, the legal system, and sometimes themselves.
Bargaining: Bargaining can suggest a desire to regain one’s power that has been taken from them. This may include survivors attempting to find hope towards recovery. An example may be “Please God, if you take this all away I will never drink or go out again”. This can create false hope and power for people. Often survivors will attempt to find some control after being assaulted through bargaining. Often guilt comes in here as people try to rationalize and understand their assault. What ifs are also a big part of bargaining. This could be “What if I would have left the house a few minutes later” or “What if I would have walked another direction”. Often the what ifs play into the myths we see around sexual violence such as it’s a result of someone’s clothing.
Depression: This often represents the loss we feel during the grief cycle. Regarding sexual assault, this could be the loss of an identity, the loss of confidence, or feeling the loss of ones past self. Some survivors report feeling a sense of hopelessness around being able to return to who they were before the assault. Often in this stage, people can feel overwhelmed and feel as if they are living in a fog. People may find themselves isolated in this phase as they may not feel like connecting with others.
Acceptance: Often people get confused on this stage in regards to sexual assault. They may ask “How can I accept that I was raped?”. I always remind people that acceptance is not the same as saying it’s okay. Acceptance is simply the acknowledgement of facts. When someone enters the acceptance stage, they may feel as if their emotions are beginning to stabilize. The goal is not to forget what happened but to be able to form a new narrative and localize the memory in time rather than having it constantly at the forefront of the mind. In this stage, people may begin to return to activities that they enjoyed before and may feel that they have more good days than bad. Using body based modalities to return to a state of homeostasis can help survivors feel safer in their bodies and feel more able to move toward acceptance.
Support groups, group therapy, and individual therapy can all be helpful tools in processing grief and loss issues after a trauma. Everyone processes grief differently but people often find it beneficial to work with a grief specialist who can help guide them through the grief process.
If you are struggling with grief and loss after a trauma and would like to know more about Shannon’s services, contact her today for a free consultation.
Bio: Shannon McHenry is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a specialty focus in childhood trauma, rape and battering, and PTSD. She is a trauma therapist in Los Angeles and works with clients in her offices in Los Feliz and Torrance. Combining clinical experience with a passion to support women in repairing their relationships with themselves and others, she has supported many to create a long-lasting recovery from destructive behaviors. Call Shannon today to book your first appointment.