Complicated grief - grieving the death of an abuser

The death of an abuser can place their survivors in a snowstorm of complicated and conflicting emotions. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are master manipulators, so it’s natural that feelings about their death are not likely to be straightforward.


This can add to further feelings of isolation if the survivor’s support network does not understand how they can be grieving someone that was so harmful to them. It’s also likely that there will be a degree of relief, which often triggers tricky and conflicting emotions, for which themselves and others may judge them.

What feelings might arise?

Possible emotions include, but are not limited to:

Fear and anxiety

Survivors might question “are they really gone or is it another manipulation tactic?” and be afraid to feel safe straight away. They might question what happens now if the abuser always gave orders. If the survivor wasn’t allowed to leave the house, the death might mean that they can freely do so - but fear to. The existing expectation of repercussions may not simply melt away just because that person has died.

If financial abuse was in play, it might be that the remaining person has no means of income now that the ‘provider’ has gone, leaving them anxious about the future. It’s likely in this case that they might have no idea what state their own finances are in particularly if the abuser took on debts in their name and had access to their bank accounts.


Feelings of depression, if not clinical depression, is a common aspect of grief and after domestic abuse, so it is likely to be present in the combination of the two. The survivor has been through a great trauma, feelings of depression are a natural reaction.


There are many reasons the survivor can feel guilt after the death. Self-blame for the situation is extremely common after domestic abuse, even without a death. Sometimes they feel guilty for being relieved at the news of the death or wishing it upon them so they can escape without the danger of having to leave. It’s also possible the abuser completed suicide in reaction to them leaving or bringing them to justice, which can evoke even deeper feelings of guilt.


It’s common for abusers to isolate people as it makes them more vulnerable and easy to control. It might be that the death has left the survivor alone with no one to share their pain with. Even if they have a vast support network of friends and family around them, it’s still likely they could feel lonely in their grief.

With domestic abuse being such a complex process, it’s sometimes hard for outsiders to grasp that it’s possible to love or remain dependent on someone who has had such a negative impact on their life. For this reason, survivors may feel very lonely in their grief as those around them are not likely to fully understand it.


For the same reason that people can feel lonely in their grief for their abuser, they can also feel great shame for feeling this way and about the control that person still has over them. It’s also likely that their self-esteem will have been so undermined by the abuser, that shame is a common emotional reaction to any events in their lives.


Abusers often take complete control over their survivors’ lives so, when they die, it can leave those who remain feeling helpless. If they’re no longer used to making decisions for themselves or being allowed to go out at will, suddenly being allowed to do so can feel both disorientating and overwhelming. They might be unsure of the next steps to take.


It’s natural that when a terrible situation ends, those experiencing it should feel relief. It could be a relief that the survivor doesn’t have to go through the danger of trying to leave the abuser or no longer live in fear of the repercussions having already left them. The finality of it can also be a relief as they can’t be once again manipulated back into that awful situation.


It’s also common for survivors to not truly believe that the abuser has gone, it simply may not feel real and they may not dare to feel safe straight away. It might take for them to view the body or attend the funeral for the reality that they’re safe to sink in.


Similarly, there are many reasons a survivor might feel angry. They might be angry that other people are mourning the abuser after all they did to them. They might be angry that they died before being brought to justice and now don’t have to live with the consequences of their abuse, whilst the survivor still suffers them. It also might be that the death allows them enough emotional space from the abuse to start to process it - releasing anger at their situation.

This is not a complete list of the feelings experienced by a survivor of domestic violence following the death of an abuser. There may be many different ones, as well as many different reasons for the ones listed to occur. The emotions around grief are all very personal to the individuals and situations they find themselves in. However, it is important to realise that any feelings that emerge are understandable and a natural reaction to such complicated circumstances.

What is disenfranchised grief?

Disenfranchised grief is often defined as grief that isn’t supported or acknowledged by those around you, or society as a whole. Disenfranchised grief can happen for a number of reasons and, in the context of domestic abuse, grief can be disenfranchised because:

People don’t understand that it’s possible to grieve someone that caused the survivor such pain, tending to think that they’re ‘better off without them’. They don’t realise that the moments of tenderness between bouts of abuse are designed to inspire love in the abused - manipulating them into staying. This ‘spell’ isn’t broken just because the abuser has died and those feelings can still remain. Often in domestic abuse, survivors will form what’s known as a trauma bond with the perpetrator, causing them to be emotionally dependent on the relationship. The feelings of love in trauma-bonded relationships tend to be more intense than in healthy relationships, which will intensify the feelings of grief.

The survivor is ashamed to admit they are grieving the person so those around them assume they are coping with the death.

Domestic abuse is often a closely-guarded secret so, whilst others may be applauding the attributes of the deceased abuser - unaware of their actions, the survivor’s feelings such as relief and anger can be invalidated, and even leave them questioning ‘were they really as bad as I believed them to be?’.

What can help?

Grief after domestic abuse is a complicated and draining process, it can take longer than you expect to work through it and start to feel better. For this reason, it’s really important that you take good care of yourself in the weeks and months following the death, to help you keep up the strength to work through your grief without burning out. With grief being so personal, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but here are some ideas of what might help:

Find someone you can talk to honestly about your experience and feelings without the risk of feeling judged or worrying about upsetting them. It should be someone that is willing to listen to what you’re saying without trying to ‘fix’ you.

Learn more about domestic abuse which can help to validate your experience and show you you’re not alone. The Freedom Programme or books like One in Four Women by Sandra Reddish can help you piece together what has happened and how to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Practice self-care. Make sure you’re giving yourself the rest and nutrition your body needs in this exhausting time. It doesn’t necessarily fix anything, but being well rested and upholding a balanced diet can help you feel more able to cope with it all.

Talk to professionals experienced in working with domestic abuse including local charities and women’s centres who have trained staff that understand your situation and can offer appropriate and informed support.

Joining a forum and talking to other people in a similar situation can really help you to feel less alone in your ordeal and to validate your feelings.

Take your time. Grief is a long process even when uncomplicated. Don’t try and rush through it or put pressure on yourself to be feeling better by a certain point.

Hold onto hope. What you’ve been through is traumatic and grief is overwhelming. You don’t have to wake up feeling good in the early days, you just need to hold onto the hope that things will one day feel easier and that good days will return.

For more information on bereavement support, please contact Fay below.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Derby, DE22 2DL
Written by Dandelions Bereavement Support
Derby, DE22 2DL

Fay has worked with bereaved people since leaving school at the age of 17. Originally training as a Funeral Arranger, she went on to specialise in bereavement support a few years later. In 2020 she qualified as a Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, and in 2021 wrote and published a grief activity book, Missing Someone Special, for bereaved children.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Bereavement

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals