“Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
I’m sure you’ve heard that saying at some point in your life. I’ve heard it for decades and wondered where that phrase came from. I found the origins of this saying date back to Roman times. In Latin the phrase is: “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.” People used to believe if you said bad things about someone who died it would cause their spirit to come back and haunt you.
It’s time for a new saying and a new way of talking and thinking about this aspect of death.
If the person who abandoned you or abused you dies, you get to speak ill of them. You get to speak the truth about what they did to you, what pain they caused you, and how it changed you.
The question for victims of abuse or abandonment is always this: who do you feel safe talking to?
Before I continue on this topic, though, I want to offer the following information for readers.
Special Note for 13-25 year olds: If you are between the ages of 13-25 and someone is abusing you now, or has in the past, or you have been abandoned/thrown out of your home, and you don’t know where to turn for help, please think about using the Crisis Text Line to get help.
The Crisis Text Line (CTL) is available anywhere in the United States. It is a nationwide toll free texting service, available 24/7, for young people in crisis. CTL can help with issues such as physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, coping with death, bullying, cutting, and drug and alcohol issues and more. *There is no cost above the usual text message cost your plan may charge.
Just text “LISTEN” to 741-741 and text them a message about what you are dealing with and a trained specialist will help you stay safe and connect you to someone in your area who can help you. You can learn more about Crisis Text Line services and how CTL works on their webpage www.crisistextline.org.
When you find out that the person who abused you or abandoned you has died, you may feel relief that they are dead. You may also relive those deep emotions of fear, pain, or anxiety and feel like their victim all over again – even if it’s been years since you last saw them or you’ve had years of therapy. I see the whole spectrum of responses to the death of an abuser/abandoner in my probate practice.
Death has a way of triggering deep-seeded, long forgotten memories that your brain retains. I’m not talking about what toy your sister took from you when you were 10, or what slight you suffered at the hands of a family member at the holiday dinner table. This is about the tangible pain and recall of horrific events you experienced as the victim of abuse or abandonment.
Every day an abuser or abandoner dies, but their victims don’t talk about what they suffered and what this death means to them. We need to talk about it, though, because when the phone rings to tell you that your abuser has died, you can suddenly find yourself back in the moment as the child who was abandoned, the wife who was abused, or the victim who was raped. We need to know what this death can trigger, and how to cope in those first moments, days, weeks.
I am not a psychologist, but I do counsel people who are in crisis because someone has died. I offer these suggestions below based on my own experience of working with victims of abuse or abandonment in situations of the death of their abuser or the abandoner.
If you are the victim of abuse or abandonment and you have just learned that your abuser/abandoner has died, please pick up the phone and call your closest friend or your therapist, if you have one, for help.
Please do not be alone with this news, let someone help you.
If you do not have close friends you feel you can share this information with, please call a hotline dedicated to crisis assistance with the issues you are facing. You can find hotlines dedicated to assisting people in crisis through Google, Yahoo, Bing or any other major search engine. There are so many crisis lines that I cannot list them all here. The important thing is to not be alone with this experience.
If you get a call from a friend in crisis, I offer the following practical suggestions of actions you can take that might help alleviate some of your friend’s pain and suffering, and give them support in those first moments, days or weeks after a death.
- Do you want me to stay on the phone with you or do you want me to come to your house?
That is the first question you should ask when you get one of these calls. If your friend lives within the same city or you can reach them quickly, offer to go over and be with them if possible. Your physical presence can help calm that person and support them.
Don’t be surprised if the person says they don’t know the answer to that question. They are in crisis; just keep them talking on the phone until you can work out a plan for someone to get to them physically, either you or a friend who lives closer.
If you can’t physically get to them, then assure them you will stay on the phone with them as long as they need you to listen. Once they calm down, make it clear that at the end of the call, the two of you will have agreed to a plan for how the rest of their day is going to play out.
For example, is there a friend nearby who can get over there quickly until you can arrive?
Does someone need to call the person’s boss to get some time off approved for this friend so they don’t lose their job for not showing up for a shift?
Do they need to see a therapist for emergency professional counseling?
You have to think about whether your friend is at risk for harming themselves (alcohol/drugs/cutting/suicide)? If so, get them emergency mental health counseling, this is not a situation you should or could handle by yourself.
You may not feel qualified to answer any of those questions. You may even be wondering why they called you out of all their friends.
The short answer is this: none of the “why you” questions you might ask yourself while on the other end of this call matter. They called you, so you need to be present with them and honor their request for your help at this time of crisis.
- Listen, and keep listening, for as long as they need to get their pain out verbally.
People are like boats on an ocean, we get rocked off our centers by these waves of emotion around events of death – especially when they blindside us and crash into us. People usually return to their center again and calm down if they can just talk out their initial shock and pain at knowing their abuser or the person who abandoned them has died. Your job is to listen and hear what they are saying.
If the person who died had abused/raped your friend, then you can reassure them that this person can no longer hurt them or anyone else. They no longer have to worry about seeing the abuser on a street, on a bus, or when they open their front door. The abuser is gone from this earth, and your friend has learned they never have to be in an abusive relationship again. Get them to a professional counselor, if they are not already seeing a therapist, as soon as you can.
If the person who died abandoned your friend, that’s a harder road. Usually, children who have been abandoned still have hope of finding some way to have a relationship with that parent/brother/sister/child/friend/ex-spouse and death cuts off that hope.
In some cases it’s an adult child who abandoned the parent and the parent is your friend. What if that adult child has died and the parent is the one grieving because they had always hoped for reunion and relationship with their adult child?
Whatever the circumstances, these friends need professional counseling to help them sort through all of those feelings, so get them the resources they need as soon as you can.
You can’t be their mental health counselor, unless that’s your career, but you can be the friend who makes that appointment for them and takes them to see someone who can help them.
- Get emergency professional counseling, if needed.
Emergency counseling is hard to find, but it does exist, and in these situations, look everywhere you can think of to find it if you think your friend is at risk of harming themselves. If your friend is already seeing a counselor, call that professional and book an appointment.
Here are several possible sources for emergency and non-emergency professional counseling:
a) The person’s health insurance company, which should have resources for referral for counseling options.
b) If the person’s employer has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), call that 800 line, it’s usually listed somewhere in their employee handbook for health coverage information, or can be obtained from the human resources office/website of their employer. EAP may have access to emergency counseling for your friend.
c) If they are religious, call their spiritual leader/counselor for help.
d) Call the local hospital triage line to see what, if anything, they can offer.
e) Call or text a crisis hotline and get help.
If professional counseling is not immediately available, gather the friends around and form a supportive network for the friend who is experiencing this death. They may want someone to sleep over with them so they are not alone. They could use food brought to the house that can easily be rewarmed (soups are good) and will last in the fridge a few days so they don’t have to think about food prep. Whoever is staying with them needs to monitor food and water intake to make sure they are eating and drinking plenty of water.
Some Practical Advice on Getting Through the Days and Nights.
If your abuser or abandoner has died, there are practical things I encourage you to pay attention to in the first days after you learn of this death.
If you are caring for a friend who is going through this experience of a death of an abuser or abandoner, please consider the following suggestions as guidelines for your friend who is in crisis.
- Drink water, especially if you have stopped eating. Our bodies react to trauma/shock in different ways – some people just stop taking in food altogether. Victims of abuse and abandonment tend to replay in their minds all of the abuse they suffered, or the history of their abandonment. Make sure you drink water and stay hydrated. This is a huge stress event for your body and the body needs water. It may sound like a weird thing to focus on, but my experience in these situations is that dehydration makes things much worse.
- Get moving physically. You need to move your body in some form of exercise – walk around the block, in a park, on the beach, in the woods, go for a run, go workout, whatever you usually do for exercise do it! Get moving again, outdoors if possible, it helps bring down the level of anxiety and may help you feel hungry and start to eat properly. Exercise helps us feel in control of our bodies, for those who suffered abuse, this is especially important so you feel in control of your physical body in the midst of this experience.
- Find ways to relax your muscles. When human beings get stressed our muscles tense up and it’s hard to relax, making it even harder to sleep and to cope. Take hot showers, soak in a tub with Epsom salts, do yoga, and/or get therapeutic massage. Massage can help the body release the muscle strain caused by the trauma of learning of this death and reliving those memories.
- Meditate, pray, chant, find a spiritual outlet for your fear and anger if you can, the main rule is don’t hold the pain, shock, fear, or anxiety inside, let it out, get it out.
- Remember at this time how much you are loved and cherished in the present, by your family, your friends, and/or by those you help in the world. No matter what has happened in the past, whether you were abused or abandoned, you are a gift to those who know you now. Think about how much you have helped others, what you mean to everyone who knows you. Talk to a friend or a crisis line counselor or write in a journal about what you are learning about yourself in this trauma. You may have some new insights into this person who abused/abandoned you and how that experience shaped your own life/values/passions/goals.
- Get laughing again. Watch a ridiculous, funny movie, go to a comedy club, sit around with friends and tell the stupidest jokes you know, watch people tell jokes on YouTube, or watch a funny show on TV. Laughter is the best medicine and it’s free! Why do I recommend laughter? Laughing is an interruption in the ongoing reliving of the abuse or story of abandonment you may be experiencing in your brain right now, so laughter helps to heal by bringing you back to the present moment, where you are safe and loved.
Some people feel relief that their abuser is dead. That’s perfectly normal, but other emotions may follow after that initial relief, like anger that this person never had to answer for what they did to you in a court of law, or to you, personally, or to your family if they abused everyone. It’s still a big change in your world when your abuser dies. Please let a close friend, crisis line counselor, or therapist know what you are going through even if you think you are doing fine.
And remember, you get to speak ill of the dead if they abused or abandoned you.
Advice to Friends Helping Friends in Crisis
The simple act of being physically and/or emotionally present can be comforting and calming to someone who is in crisis. When someone is in pain, they want to be heard by another human being and know that they are not alone in the world.
So if you get a call from a friend in crisis because their abuser/abandoner has died, please consider the following information.
When someone reveals their past abuse to you, and is in crisis because their abuser has died, never say “sorry to hear that, dude, I’ll pray for you” and then hang up on them. And yes, that is actually a real life response a young man in crisis got from a friend the day after his abuser died. The “I’ll pray for you, click” response does not cut it in a friendship.
Believe it or not, this is unfortunately a typical response from a circle of friends. We don’t like messy situations; we don’t want to hear directly from another person about their pain, it’s uncomfortable. We resort to these generic, get off the phone fast statements, or quick text messages that make us feel better but allow us to avoid having to be present with another human being who is in pain.
Prayers are nice, but this human being on the other end of the phone with you, or standing in front of you, has trusted you in the present moment to help them deal with a painful experience of life. You are called at that moment to listen with your full attention, to look them in the eye if you are physically with them, to assure them that you hear them, that you hear their words and see their pain.
Abusers and abandoners die every day, and their victims need to be able to talk about what happened to them, without being judged, to people who will listen and be present with them and care for them.