GRIEF, LOSS and SEXUAL ASSAULT: The Agony of An Untold Story

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

—Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on the Road, 1969

Sexual assault survivors are among the most disenfranchised populations, coping with narratives of multiple losses, uncertainty, and grief that frequently go unacknowledged. An alleged perpetrator gleefully walks across the stage at a college graduation, cheered on by an audience, some of whom, aware of the assault, applaud nonetheless. Meanwhile, the assault survivor, disoriented and betrayed by a system and society designed to protect offenders, struggles with grief that is suffocated by a system filled with penalties  and oppressive stigma stemming from the assault. The survivor is left to contend with losses of trust and physical and emotional safety. She faces the agony of knowing that despite the perpetrator’s actions, he will experience the freedom to participate in a life of possibilities and protections with few or no social, educational, or legal sanctions—a luxury that, in an instant, was violently seized from the survivor.

Grief, loss, and social injustice are vital elements in the distinct yet intersecting stories of sexual assault and post-assault survivorship. Yet survivors must frequently cope in isolation or in programs and therapeutic settings that do not consistently account for grief and loss as central to their experiences.  These factors, related to disenfranchisement and suffocated grief among young adult females, further complicate grief and mourning processes.

Losses commonly associated with sexual assault and issues of disenfranchisement and suffocated grief that serve to further complicate coping processes for survivors are numerous, cumulative, and multilayered.

The primary loss is the pre-assault life and worldview. There are also a multitude of secondary or accompanying losses that may be both visible (e.g., friendship loss) and invisible (e.g., loss of trust).

Secondary losses in sexual assault include, but are not limited to loss of trust in self and others, as well as:

  • beliefs about the goodness of others
  • loss of self-identity, freedom, and independence
  • loss of control and autonomy, such as in the timing of reporting
  • loss of a sense of safety and security
  • loss of positive self-concept or self-esteem
  • loss of finances and job
  • loss of social capital such as friends and social networks or intimate partnerships and
  • loss of sexual interest and other sex-related losses.

In interchanges with the legal system, there may be multiple losses. There may be a loss of ability to present one’s case in court. Among cases that make it to trial, survivors may lose the ability to tell the assault narrative in a coherent and meaningful way because stories of survivors are often dismantled in court, and survivors are instead expected to respond mainly to yes or no questions[closed questions].

Additionally, there are losses of privacy and time in legal proceedings; court trials often continue for months or even years with no clear ending or resolution, which may prolong or delay grief. The grief process may be further complicated in cases where there is no conviction. Survivors are possibly re-victimized when the verdict is experienced as unjust.

Unfortunately, the losses are not finite, as there can be a continuous presence of loss that is often hidden, invisible, and ongoing in nature which may be exacerbated because the circumstances surrounding the loss result in recurrent pain, grief, or intense distress involving, for example, shame, self-consciousness, or social isolation.

With an understanding of sexual assault as a type of bereavement, offering fitting interventions that enfranchise grief become apparent, and the notion of growth through loss is problematic. It imposes a timeline upon the survivor as to the grieving process- oppressive and greatly unfair. Survivors need time to process the fact that they have been violated and to establish new norms in their ‘post-assault’ life.

Support for any and all feelings of loss is and should be a basic right, should be acknowledged as we consider it an “unearned entitlement” of survivors of sexual assault. Supports can be emotional, concrete, physical, but it is more necessary that supports are comprehensive.

As we deliver supports to sexual assault survivors, we need them to be collaborative, free from stigma or re-victimization, and environments need to be intentionally supportive. By design, it is to be expected that all settings support emotional and physical safety and ultimately, total well-being.

Fragmented services have prevailed for far too long, and this contributes to the isolation, disenfranchisement, and vulnerability often experienced by survivors. The many untold stories need to be told, heard, and prevented from becoming insurmountable barriers to restoring or attaining total wellness of survivors.

“Wellness is a positive state of being brought about by the simultaneous, balanced and synergistic satisfaction of personal, relational, and collective needs…. Wellness cannot flourish in the absence of justice, and justice is devoid of meaning in the absence of wellness.…” (Prilleltensky, Dokecki, Frieden, & Wang, 2007)

Attention to cultural frameworks must be employed in practices designed to understand disenfranchisement and complications to the grief process for survivors. It is all too often the case that unacknowledged or disenfranchised grief is related to lack of assault disclosure[the untold story] among individuals from more marginalized social locations (e.g., African American, female).

Female assault victims are at an increased risk for self-harm or harm to others, and deemed less costly than the effort required to counteract long-standing oppressive patriarchal systems. Punishment for working against privilege and the supported systems is often swift and severe.

For example, a female assault survivor on a college campus who pursues charges against a star football player, seemingly one individual, would actually be working against multiple systems of oppression (e.g., athletic system, legal system). In pursuing her basic right of recognition and justice, she may be publicly maligned and faced with a case in which the perpetrator, supported by multiple systems that reflect and reinforce male privilege and oppression of women, is not convicted.

Nuff said?!!! No. There are still too many untold stories. If you have a story to tell, speak now or later, but tell your story and own your power and your right to heal and be well.

To be continued…


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