Grieving Sexual Assault: Applying Grief to the Trauma of Rape
By: Meghan Hahl, Therapy Intern
When someone says the word “rape,” or discusses the idea of sexual assault, one rarely thinks to associate the traumatic incident with the concept of grief. When survivors consider their pain and the trauma they have experienced, the idea of going through the stages of grief may never cross their mind. To many, grief is something that we experience when we lose a loved one, something that we suffer when a death occurs. When many picture grief, they picture the widow dressed all in black, or the family crying over the loss of a treasured grandparent. It isn’t often that we widen our own associations to include loss as a whole. An individual who has experienced sexual assault may be mourning their own loss- this can mean the loss of their identity, the loss of the ‘normality’ their life held before the assault, or even, in cases when victims know their abuser, the loss of their abuser as a person they once had in their life.
The stages of grief have been showcased through the media, making their rounds on talk shows and movies alike. Though these stages have nearly become common knowledge and have often been looked at as simplistic, they hold precedence when discussing grief work. Individuals in grief are shown to experience five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages remain applicable to those grieving their sexual assault. The process begins with Denial, which is often the victim’s immediate response to the rape. The victim may have difficulty acknowledging that the rape occurred, and may be looking for ways to classify it as separate from a sexual assault. The victim may then move into the Anger stage, in which the victim may experience anger at her abuser, anger at the situation, or even misplaced anger within her/himself. Bargaining then follows, with the victim attempting to minimize the emotional trauma that s/he is experiencing due to the assault. The victim bargains, attempting to balance or underplay emotions. The victim then moves into the stage of Depression, in which the reality of the assault begins to take a hold. The victim may be experiencing hopelessness or shame now that s/he is more fully feeling her emotions and the assault has become “more real.” Finally, the victim moves on to the Acceptance stage, where s/he is able to gain some acceptance toward the assault. At this point the victim is able to work within a “new normal,” and begin to resume life post-trauma.
While the five stages of grief have been shown to represent the process of grief for many, it is important to realize that grief is an individualized experience that is different for everyone. Not all individuals grieve in the same way; some may progress quickly through the first three stages and find themselves stuck in the depression stage for a longer period of time, while others may remain in denial for years after the assault before they can move into anger. Some may find they skip certain stages altogether. Healing from a sexual trauma or any traumatic response occurs differently for each victim, and unfortunately does not happen as quickly as many hope it will. The same can be said for grief work- unfortunately those in grief do not progress through their five stages overnight, but with a strong network of support and enough time, victims can find their way towards acceptance.