The Secret Grief of an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse

[photo credit: flickr user Robert Terrell
“I wonder if others feel the tremendous amount of loss and sadness I feel at not having the ‘healthy’ parent experience,” writes an Invisible Scar reader in a recent email.

“It’s heartbreaking and my heart is definitely broken,” she continues. “But, it’s an overwhelming amount of grief to process and yet, it has to be processed and felt to really move on into a new way of living and perceiving your familial relationships. So, I thought it might be interesting to talk about grieving, how it’s OK to grieve and how we need to grieve this relationship that we were so entitled to and so desperately needed, and of which we were so painfully deprived.”


Breathe in, breathe out. Find a safe, comfortable place to read this post. Maybe pour yourself some peppermint tea. Because, yes, we do need to talk about grief.

Grief Need Not Be Feared

After years of being held emotionally captive, a freshly awakened adult will find strong, unexplored emotions—such as anger, confusion, panic, fear—whirling in his heart. Dark and heavy in the maelstrom will be grief.

That grief may not be seen clearly at first, for the enormity of the loss may not be fully understood at this time.

“Grief is the psychological-emotional experience following a loss of any kind (relationship, status, job, house, game, income, etc.).” (Dr. Will Meek, Psychology Today column, Note to Self)

In the agony of the time following adult survivor’s awakening, the adult survivor may overlook this grief. He may find himself rushing through different emotions. He may mistakenly believe emotions can be approached in order as if on a list or think that all emotions will be experienced separately rather than in the entanglement that they usual are.

Mostly, an adult survivor will seem to try and hurry through the grief in a desperate attempt to get the state of being emotionally healthy.

After all, no one likes being on the healing journey. Everyone would much rather be healed instantly.

Adult survivors may lack self-examination or ignore therapy in their urgency to forget the past. They may shove their darker, messier feelings—those complicated knots of emotions—under the bed to gather dust and never emerge again. They want to be happy and feel safe NOW.

However, grief must be felt, endured, and gone through to get to a healthy place.

To not recognize the loss, or rather, the myriad losses, of an abusive childhood is to prevent oneself from being wholly healed.

Grief is not generally considered a disorder but rather is viewed as an adaptation to a loss. In this respect, the process of grieving is similar to the process of healing. It involves working through the stages of grief…

“The resolution of grief requires accepting the reality of the loss, cognitively and emotionally, and reorganizing the facets of life in spite of the loss. However, resolution is not a return to the ‘old self.’ One never really returns to his or her former self. Instead, one incorporates the experience into what eventually becomes a new self. Reaching resolution requires working through grief, which takes time.” (William F. Doverspike, Ph.D., “Grief: The Journey From Suffering to Resilience“)

What Are Adult Survivors Mourning?

Grief for adult survivors is a complex emotion because so much of the loss has been built up over time and adult survivors have long learned to adapt to the constant loss of an abusive childhood.

“Victims’ grief is delayed because most abused children learn how to adapt to even astonishingly difficult circumstances in order to survive, but they do pay a price,” states Dr. Sandra Bloom in her study The Grief That Dare Not Speak Its Name. “A later crisis or loss in adult life may unmask an underlying vulnerability that has been lurking beneath the apparently normal surface of their lives for years.”

A vague sorrow follows adult survivors who have not come to grips with the reality of their childhood abuse. The dark and heavy feeling has been with them all their life. Perhaps as children, they sometimes felt long stretches of sadness that had no specific identifiable cause to outsiders. The child may have had the physical necessities of life, may have had a family that appeared outwardly stable and loving, may have even willed himself to believe the facade.

And yet….

Something was not quite right. How could everything have been right when the child felt a sorrow dogging his heels, casting a shadow on a life that everyone else said was sunny?

“For adult survivors, the losses that accompany child maltreatment are cloaked in silence, lost in the shrouds of history, and largely unrecognized,” Bloom states. “But these ‘little deaths’ linger as unremoved splinters in the survivor’s psyche for decades.” (Dr. Bloom)

Much later, when they awaken, they recognize that feeling as a grief for the loss of so many things.

The Sorrows of an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse

 1. The loss of a childhood that never was

The resiliency of children is what keeps them together enough to make it through to adulthood. And so, they often tell themselves that they are really not abused, no.

Everything’s fine. My family is loving. Everyone’s great.

Despite everything in children telling them that they are being abused, they cling to the belief that all is well.

That’s because the reality of their abusive childhood can be too stunning, far too overwhelming for a child to completely grasp. And so, they cushion their heart with the belief that their parents aren’t that bad, that the child is “just being too sensitive,” etc.

When the adult child awakens to reality, they have this lie of their childhood torn from them—and the loss cuts to the quick.

2. The loss of what childhood should have been

“There’s a feeling of being ripped off,” an adult survivor of childhood neglect told me recently. “You didn’t get what you were supposed to get in childhood.”

The right of a child is to have a parent’s unconditional love.

After all, “a child is not something owed to one, but is a gift,” states The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Good parents love their children, listen to them, spend time with them, encourage them, laugh with them, help them grow into kind and good people. Good parents equip their children with what they need to have healthy, safe childhoods. Good parents respect the personhood of their childhood.

“The relationships within the family bring an affinity of feelings, affections and interests, arising above all from the members’ respect for one another. The family is a privileged community called to achieve a ‘sharing of thought and common deliberation by the spouses as well as their eager cooperation as parents in the children’s upbringing.'” (226 CCC)

Waking up to the realization that you needed so much more than what you were given emotionally is grief-inducing.

3. The loss of the people who never were

Once an adult survivor awakens to the truth, he will, through therapy and prayer, come to see the truth of who his parents are. And this realization, the unmasking of abusers, is shocking and hard.

The adult child may have seen his father as “strong, loving, doing what needs to be done” and excused aberrant behavior out of a filial love. Despite any evidence to the contrary, the “loving parent” persona has been a fixture in the adult child’s life.

But now… an adult child loses the people that never were.

Snow is on the ground
but this is not my landscape now,
where I find myself without you.
Oh I never knew you from the sun.”
(Karen Peris, “I Never Knew You From the Sun” song)

4. The loss of the present

Once awakened, an adult survivor is changed.

He may want to go back to the pre-awakening life. He may reject what he has discovered. Or he may embrace his new knowledge and run toward a new life. He may dig deep into understanding what was endured, what was taught, what can be done to live an emotionally healthy life.

Whatever the choice, the fact is that the adult survivor is different by being awake. And that means that what was has changed. An awakened adult will lose her slippery grasp on imagined people and on her hopes for the present.

Life’s different now. And that fact might be very difficult for adult survivors to face. Some even may try to go back to the old ways. But for those who remain strong and fight the hardest battle, they may grieve the present because they know hard work and a different path are now ahead of them.

5. The loss of the future

An adult survivor may have thought about his future at some point, one that included his parents. Or at least, that included his perception of who his parents were. Perhaps he imagined taking care of his parents in their old age and reconnecting emotionally—wishing, perhaps subconsciously, for his parents’ old age to bring a reconciliation or something deeper and kinder than what is.

Or perhaps an adult survivor may have imagined his parents as grandparents, perhaps helping out with the grandchildren, pitching in financial or emotional support. Despite the adult survivor’s gut feeling that everything will be as it was with him, he clings to the hope for a better, emotionally safer and healthier future.

But that’s most probably not going to happen.

And so the imagined future, with older parents who aren’t abusers, dies.

The grief digs deep into the heart.

6. The losses felt by their younger selves

An awakened adult survivor will have post-traumatic stress disorder—the trauma triggering it being “childhood.”

Memories of the past will not feel the same. Now, you’ll see the past through a clearer, longer-reaching lens. In looking through the new lens, you’ll find yourself full of deep sympathy for your childhood self. Many adult survivors even refer to themselves as “little Cary” or “little James.” And they’ll feel that sorrow, almost re-experience it, as the child once more.

You’ll be far more connected to your younger self, who has found his voice.

All these griefs can feel overwhelming and heavy. You may find yourself scared and panicked and confused at times. Or you may want to crawl back to your unawakened days.

Grief can make you want to mollify it with drugs, alcohol, sex, food binges, etc.

But there are healthier, safer ways to get through the grief.

How to Handle Grief

The weight of all this grief may feel too much to bear, but know you are not alone. Other adult survivors of emotional child abuse have felt similar emotions are yours, and they have learned, through time and therapy and prayer, to trim those sorrows into smaller, more bearable pieces. The sorrow will not go away completely, for those griefs have already been carved into your heart… but they will no longer threaten to stop it from beating.

You can live through this sorrow. You can come through it stronger than you could have imagined.

  • Go to therapy.
    You need someone to help you through your memories, to help guide you through the grief, to know if you are fixating on sorrows, to note how much you have grown and learned. The right therapist will be your guide to a healthier, emotionally stronger you. Seek this advocate in your life. You deserve it.
  • Share your sorrow with a safe friend.
    Make sure you confide in a trustworthy friend, and know he/she really cares about you and wants you to be a healthier, stronger self. You’ll need a confidante, and you’ll also need a friend to pull you out of the sorrows now and then and share the gift of laughter.
  • Read about emotional child abuse and how to heal from it.
    Don’t just read about the damaging behaviors or the abuse itself… Also, read about how you can heal from your grief.
  • Pray.
    Pray for strength and courage to work through your grief. Pray for healing. Pray for all other adult survivors of emotional child abuse who you know or who read The Invisible Scar. Pray with words or music or tears. Pray in silence, just a mindful quiet in the presence of He Who Loves You Most in the World.

Know you are not alone.

Know you matter.

And know that you can be healed.


Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, Loyola Press, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.

43 thoughts on “The Secret Grief of an Adult Survivor of Emotional Child Abuse

  1. Thank you for writing this. I am 43 years old and it’s been about a year since I made the decision to free myself. I entered therapy a couple of years ago and by the grace of the Universe, had a wonderful therapist clued in enough to help me SEE that my parental unit (Mom, Dad, Stepmom) are in order: Borderline, Enabler/Narc, and Covetous Sociopath- I was being targeted by this one currently (Stepmom) for the last few years. I was told that if I decided to maintain limited contact with them (Dad & Stepmom), I could not tell them anything important about my life- that it had to be tea party talk in order to stop being abused by them, which I have done. They are 100% tea party people anyway, armed with boundaries to the hilt, so it was very telling/terrifying how the nasties came out when I stopped feeding them my life force. I have been implementing this (instructions of my therapist) for 10 months (avoided all their bait and weird attempts at communication)- they haven’t called me once, BTW, and then received an email about a complete separation from them last week out of the blue. When I didn’t respond to them, they sent it again a few days later and so they are attempting to force an ultimatum on me. The other punishment for my limited involvement was not being informed of my Grandmother’s funeral- the whole family was there. I can only imagine what excuses were made for me….probably best I don’t know.
    My Mom I cut off years ago because she was an abusive alcoholic (physically/verbally to me as a child) and I realized she was never going to change and she had been sabotaging my sister and me our whole lives- my sister cut her off as well.
    In a nutshell, I am grieving a family I never had. My 43 year denial-spree constructed some sort of placebo family in response to the abuse. I look back on how many psychiatric labels I was “tagged…you’re it! with” and medication cocktails I was force fed in my childhood, and then resolved to for my whole adult life like a wrongful sentence. I think it was easier to accept that I was mentally ill or innately flawed than to face that my parents needed me to be. The other realization was that no matter what I did, that was my role for life because it’s what served them best. It stood out how they made a point to mention in their separation letter how all they have ever wanted was the best for me.
    A life of anxiety, panic attacks, depression….(maybe all under the umbrella of PTSD) were their parental contribution. Their parental demands and expectations not only minimize, invalidate, deny, and cloak their role as the real perpetrators but to the extent they will damage their children to maintain that pretense: the orchestration of it all……this was the unconditional gift to their children, not the love.
    I know I am doing the right thing by rebuilding my life even if only a couple of people/animals are in it- I get comfort from nature, birds, trees, wind when I feel the need to cave and go back to my role. I think I grieve that placebo family because I am not fully in touch with how I feel about being a victim of chronic child abuse and neglect.

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  2. I’m flooded with grief for the little girl that still lives in my mind. Reading this article brought to mind a searing memory of physically being pulled out of my mother’s car every morning in second grade by the school principal. Every morning I would have stomachaches and sometimes nosebleeds because I dreaded going to school so badly. By the time we got to school I would be worked into a full on lather and the principal would be there waiting on the sidewalk to take me out of my mother’s car screaming and crying and my mom sat there crying too. I could not stand for her to be out of my sight because I was afraid my father would beat her to death before I got back home from school. I had no siblings and my father had moved us to the other side of the state away from all of my mother’s family, my mom and I had no one but each other. My father would beat her mercilessly almost daily and every time he would leave the house I would go in my room and pray he would have a wreck and die before he got back home. Then I would cry myself to sleep feeling like a freak because what normal little girl wants her father to die. I am 43 years old and sometimes my nose will catch a certain scent or the sun will casts its rays a certain way across the lawn and for an instant I’m that skinny little knobby kneed girl standing in front of my dad while he screams at me for not coming fast enough when he called my name and I stand and don’t dare move a muscle even when the urine starts to run down the insides of my legs and fill up my shoes. My little friend I’m playing with stands watching with her mouth hanging open and as my dad starts to spank me for wetting my pants she starts to cry and runs up the street toward her house. I had on little green shorts with pork chop pockets and a little silver buckle. I hate my father for not being sorry for the things he’s done.

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  3. Abusive parents and abusive siblings. Going no contact several years back has led to an outpouring of grief, seemingly unrelated to the past, yet I know it is related. A parent with dementia, hospitalized, unable to fend for themselves. Yesterday I was there, witnessing a child/parent’s loss of function. She does not remember, her mind is in her childhood now and she does not know me. I can accept that, I lit a candle at the Vatican for her, and it continues to light my way through all of this.

    When I went no contact, my siblings, angry and ascribing blame, chose to not tell me what had happened to the parent with dementia. That she had gravely injured herself, was in hospital. These are the same people who offered a person with dementia alcohol when they were drinking, so they could ‘all’ drink and smoke together. Over time another weaned her off alcohol, and sent her to an alzheimer’s ward. She is forgotten, and forgets from minute to minute who and where she is. Now is the time for me to forgive myself, and to process it all. In my concern for her well-being, comes my forgiveness and my letting go of the past. It defines me less, and I am stronger.

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  4. I read so many blogs, so many facebook followings, so many books, I’ve done the therapy (11 X) and have been on and off of medicine. I have been diagnosed with PTSD way back when I was 20 and several times throughout my life. I’m in my 40’s now. This whole grief and sadness, and depression seems never ending. My 23 year old daughter is still so angry with the so called relatives that we have…. When she has spent time with some of her friends and has gone to family get-together’s, she is overwhelmed with anger and sadness.. I feel so bad for her. I feel guilt from coming from such a Fu$ked up family. Both my daughter and 13 year old son are really alone and know that all they have is us, their mum and dad. I know this was more than what I’ve ever had. I tried to cover and be both grandparents, aunts, etc., to my kids. It became and is exhausting. Yet my family of origin , ‘play’ connected family with my half siblings and other cousins. (I’m not my stepdad’s real kid, although he adopted me at age 15 months.) My siblings have the Christmas, holiday, go to birthdays, graduations, and anything-everything get together’s. My kids, unbeknownst to me have grown up feeling that something must be wrong with them. Where are their grandparents, where are the aunt’s and uncle’s? We have tried so hard. This is a battle that I and my husband have fought from day one. I want to know how does one live life knowing that we are so alone. Yay for getting away from the asylum, I ache tremendously for the emptiness I feel. Being a military brat, and taken away from my own grandparents and home country, and then marrying someone in the military, where is my/our home? Where are my/our roots? How can I fix things I can’t possibly fix?
    I once saw a segment on the t.v. about adult’s that wanted to be adopted by loving parents, Some people commented and said this was stupid, for me, I thought, I so understand this. Imagine how many adults are looking to belong to a family, to have their own family included in family. Parenting doesn’t just stop at age 18, it’s a life time of a relationship that evolves. I’m sorry I sound defeated and frustrated. Sometimes, I just want to know, after the turmoil and going NC, and after many years of trying to make something out of nothing, how or when does it get better???

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  5. What about those of us who never believed our family or parents were good and safe? I never once thought “this is a happy loving family.” I read so much about people who swear they had happy childhoods, when they were really abused, and I don’t get it. I had a miserable childhood and an even worse adolescence. I was alone all the time with someone I almost never felt emotionally safe with. Walking on eggshells, constant tension. I knew that my mom was wrong a lot of the time — but I didn’t have anyone else, and I didn’t have a choice but to go along with her. Looking back, I can see that the reason we had so many shouting matches all the time was that I was hanging on to who I was tooth and nail and desperately trying to create and defend some semblance of my own boundaries. But at the time? I was just ungrateful, unreasonable, difficult. I was just someone “who likes to argue all the time.”

    On one level, I KNEW it was false logic. But as a child, you internalize SO MUCH — and you have no power to defend yourself, even when you know you’re right. You have nobody building you up, nobody teaching you to trust yourself, nobody demonstrating that you can expect a consistent, calm response to your words and actions. No matter how false the abuser’s words ring, you’re almost left with no choice but to believe them in ways you can’t possibly understand.

    And even though as an adult I can clearly see that it was her, not me — I still suffer from never having learned the skills you need to form normal relationships, reasonable expectations, emotional security.
    I’m almost like an adolescent now, at 38, trying to learn to trust myself and form relationships and set goals.

    I don’t grieve because some illusion was taken away from me. I never had an illusion. But I also never had a trusted adult to guide me, and I’m grieving so much for that.

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    1. I really relate to what you are going through. Its a terrible grief to realise no one was there for you when you really needed it growing up and I also relate to that extreme frustration with a mother who invalidates you.


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