Grief is something we will all experience in our lives in one form or another. Grief is our response to a loss. This can be the loss of a person, the loss of our identity, the loss of how things once were, the loss of a relationship, the way of life, a home, ability, etc. We all experience loss in different ways depending on our awareness, attachment, and love for what we have lost. We all have various connotations to grief, abilities to grieve, and present differently during the trajectory of our grief. But again, it is something we can all relate to. Grief represents change and love, and change and love are integral parts of life. Grief represents the loss and death of what was, of something loved, and the transition into a new normal or what is now. There is the time before the loss and the time after. We are changed in that process.
For survivors of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or unhealthy relationships, grief is seldom discussed, normalized, or contextualized. Grief connected to sexual abuse can be disenfranchised, meaning that it is not or cannot be publicly acknowledged. Grief in this space can refer to the loss of a litany of things - one’s selfhood, relationships, safety, privacy, the list goes on. We cannot make things return to how they were, nor may we always want to. But what we can do is learn more about grief, learn how to talk about it, and support ourselves and one another in this unavoidable part of being human.
In this piece, Kathryn adds a research lens from her background in mental health while Ella voices her survivor perspective. Please be advised that this article includes adult language and content regarding sexual abuse and misconduct that may not be suitable for all readers.
Disclaimer: Content and material in this post is for general informational purposes only. Seek out professional medical and mental health advice and support as needed. If you are in crisis, please visit our crisis resources page.
I was 13 when I first met ****. I was excited – I had found a trainer who would help me become the rider I wanted to be. He understood me, cared about me, and taught me to love the sport.
Both on and off the horse, I desperately sought his attention and approval. And that’s what cost me the next five years.
I couldn’t have other activities because that meant I didn’t care enough about my riding.
I couldn’t skip practice. That meant I didn’t care enough about my riding.
If I had to stay at the barn all evening, alone with him, to show my discipline, I would do it. Otherwise, it meant I didn’t care about my riding.
He said I wasn’t allowed to wear certain clothes. So I didn’t.
He discouraged me from hanging out with my friends. So I didn’t.
He said I couldn’t party. So I didn’t.
He said I wasn’t allowed to talk to boys or date. So I didn’t.
I didn’t want him to take over my life, but he did anyway. Despite what he’ll say now, both he and I know he did it on purpose.
I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. I had a group of friends I loved hanging out with, a cute boy I obsessed over, and overwhelming amounts of homework. But the most important thing on my mind was *****.
I became ruled by fear and desperation. Fear of upsetting him, fear of hurting him, fear of angering him, fear of disappointing him. Fear of falling one single inch outside of the parameters he had decided for my life and my behavior. Desperation to impress him. To be the perfect student. Desperate for praise. For attention.
For those things, I would’ve done nearly anything he asked.
Sometimes, we get a heads up in life that loss is approaching, that change is coming. Other times, we don’t – we are blindsided. Our lives and ourselves as we know them disappear right before our faces, sometimes over years, or in a blink of an eye. Loss and grief can be ambiguous and unprocessed or stuck. We may not even be able to recognize that we are losing something or have lost something until well after the fact. Either way, a transformation occurs - whether we like it or not.
We cannot control it, prepare for it, negotiate it, or deny it. We can’t hold on to anything. What once was stable no longer is or will be. That version or chapter of you and your life ends.
And the only way out is through.
Grief grips us physically, mentally, and emotionally and can show up in various ways in our bodies and minds. Such experiences can include fatigue, changes in appetite or sleep schedules, stomach and headaches, difficulty concentrating, and/or depressive symptoms. Some may experience physical pain, longing, and yearning. Note that we each have different automatic reactions to grief, and symptoms can change and ebb and flow over time; there is no right or wrong, or good or bad, just what is. In these circumstances, what we can do within our control is honor the messages from our bodies and prioritize basic self-care amid intense and trying times.
I was a confused, insecure, heartbroken, and destroyed 18-year-old when I saw him last in 2021.
The day he told me he loved me, I lost one of the most influential people in my life. I lost him in just a few sentences.
I had endured years of manipulation and emotional abuse at the hands of my former trainer. After this veil of deception had been torn from my eyes in just a few months, I was the most shocked, hurt, and confused I had ever been.
What happened to the **** that I knew? What happened? What did I do?
The most heartbreaking part of the entire situation was realizing that “****” didn’t exist. The person who I admired and cared for for years didn’t exist. The person I spent the majority of my life with for the years of my adolescence didn’t exist. He was simply imagined. He was crafted by a predator to gain my trust and adoration.
Yes, I am mad at the real person. But for a long time, that anger mixed with overwhelming sadness.
Within just a few months, the person I knew had faded into the depths of my memory. I panicked. What did his voice sound like? What did he look like? I couldn’t even picture his face for certain. And that scared me. Because I was forgetting these simple facts, it meant that the person I knew had left me forever. I couldn’t time travel to a year before when he still existed.
He had died that very day, and he was never coming back.
Yes, I was mad at the real person for incorporating me into his disgusting, perverted fantasy world for so long. But I was also mad at the person I knew. How could he abandon me like that? How could someone who cared for me leave me so quickly, so abruptly? How could he do that without warning me or leaving me anything to prove that he existed outside of my consciousness?
What did I do wrong? What could have I done to make him stay in my life? To stop him from deserting me, forcing me to fend for myself in an existence of fear and pain and shock?
Loss often begets confusion, turmoil, and mystery. How did it all transpire? The mind begs to know. It becomes our reckoning with what is outside of our control as our bodies and nervous systems grapple for a new homeostasis. And often with grief sparked by sexual abuse, whether it occurred over a short or long period, it’s the slipping away of one’s freedom, trustfulness, and understanding of the world.
Grief is nonlinear. With many ups and downs, it is eternal. Though we may want some sort of grief etiquette for ourselves or others, it's an experience that cannot be put in a box or quantified. Rather, it deserves and demands grace. It is often muddled with anger, bargaining, fear, joy, disgust, and longing in multi-layer complexities that need to be held, honored, and expressed. Over time, it shows up differently for ourselves and others.
I grieved for a long time. I grieved him and the person I thought I had grown up with.
Two years later, I am realizing that what I now really grieve is myself. I grieve for my childhood. I grieve my innocence. I grieve the teenage girl I was before I realized how terrible the world truly can be. Before I realized that the 97% statistic was true. Before I became part of that 97%.
I grieve my high school years.
Somewhere along the way, my world turned into one that revolved solely around the needs and wants of a grown man.
Because of him, I missed the after-school activities and clubs. I missed the hangouts with my friends who are now in college and hundreds of miles away. I lost so many hours with those people who cared more for me than he ever did.
Yes, I loved the horses. I loved the sport. But I didn’t choose to sacrifice all of those things. I didn’t choose to sacrifice those precious hours that I’d do anything to have back.
I simply wasn’t given the choice of whether to sacrifice them.
I grieve being boldly myself.
I had a spark of joy, innocence, and optimism before I met ****. I had an enthusiasm and passion for everything in my life. I loved the color pink and I loved sparkles. I loved my model horses. Even as a middle-schooler. And I didn’t care who knew, or who judged me for it. I had unabashed confidence and passion. In the five years of knowing him, he gradually dimmed this sense until it was completely gone. I’m not sure if it will ever fully return.
There is no timeline for experiencing grief. No finish lines. We are never truly done. Rather, it is a repetitive process of feeling, integration, reflection, and insights. It is the honoring of what was before the loss, letting go, and carrying on bits with you from what you lost. It is the process of learning and knowing what was.
In lieu of dodging or escaping these emotions and human experience, we can do our best to surrender, to give ourselves and others permission to surrender into grief. This looks like accepting the invitation of grief and the pain to the present moment, gently holding both what was and is. There is no script for what we can say to ourselves and others. What may be intended as helpful advice, can actually be trivializing, harmful, and invalidating.
Most of all, I grieve my innocence.
I grew up the only child of two incredible, loving, generous parents. I never knew anything other than these qualities from the adults in my life. My father, for example, is respectful, honest, trustworthy, and kind. He is an example of a truly wonderful man.
***** was the first strong male figure in my life besides my father. My father gave me a healthy, honorable idea of men in the universe. ***** came along and destroyed that image. He showed me that men could also be disgusting, manipulative, perverted liars.
I miss my former perspective when I still thought all men in this world were good and pure.
I, of course, always knew that men and boys could be gross and inappropriate. But I never imagined I would encounter one. My life so far had been so fortunate and privileged that I never thought I would have my own story to tell.
I heard other girls and women talking about their experiences. But like so many other survivors say in retrospect, I never imagined it would happen to me.
I always imagined what my first real date would be like. What it’d be like to hang out with the guy I liked. I imagined how my first kiss would be. I imagined that I’d be nervous about all of those things. Good-nervous. Butterflies-nervous. Not physically and mentally terrified.
I wasn’t scared, in theory. But the second those moments came, I found myself in absolute panic. It had nothing to do with the circumstances, or the guy, or the timing, and everything to do with *****. It was then, months and months later, that I realized just how much he took away from me. I was scared to be alone with the guy I had liked for years because my trust in men had been shattered. The romanticized “firsts” that my middle-school self expected weren’t going to happen as I planned.
All because my teenage-girl view of everything exciting and enjoyable about romance, relationships, and trust had been tainted with the perversions of a 42-year-old man who surely knew better.
I grieve myself. I grieve the quintessential teenage girl experiences that I missed out on. I grieve my untainted view of physical and emotional intimacy.
I grieve the part of myself that remains sitting on the chair I was in when he, after years of emotional abuse, told me that he “loved me.”
This is the extra tricky part. There are no constants. As you internally transform with the grieving process, you also face accepting a new external reality. Additionally, this change is simultaneous with changes happening directly or indirectly with your community, friends, family - anyone that is in contact with you. Everyone is grieving in their own way, perhaps not to what you lost, but the loss of the old version of you that is now changed from the grief.
With this rebirth, individually and collectively, we desperately need empathy and compassion to ride the waves of loss. Though grief may be empowering or enlightening, any change to our systems, internally and externally, is stressful on our nervous systems and can be hard to navigate. In these delicate moments, we can best offer ourselves and others patience and a container to experience the non-negotiable facet of being human - grief.
Cultures across the world have different rituals, traditions, and timelines for the grieving process. The key is identifying and finding what you need. Perhaps it is more mourning or the outward expression of grief; perhaps it is more private. Again, there is no right or wrong or good or bad. What others may have established in terms of bereavement time or what is okay with grief may not align with your experience. Moreover, some may not have the privilege of time and space to grieve based on other societal resistance or constraints.
Remember, there is no pressure to find the silver lining after a loss or to forgive; grief may be tied up with other emotions, and each needs to be fully honored in healing. For instance, some feel guilt in connection to experiencing loss. Ignoring grief or other emotions can lead to disconnection, dissociation, and addiction. And there is no “fixing” grief.
For additional reading on the topic of grief, check out the following books:
The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller
Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan
The Grief Club by Melody Beattie
Grief is Love by Marisa Renee Lee
The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether
Intern at #WeRideTogether