When Your Abuser Dies

Updated March 29, 2016 4:43pm PDT
When  Your  Abuser  Dies

Google how to turn Mason jars into a rocket ship or the best way to get semen out of your ear drum and you’ll be inundated with results. 

But searching “What to do when you abuser dies” yields very little. What does come up typically assumes that your abuser was old. The complexity of attending the funeral of your abusive grandfather isn’t given much room online, but there’s a little space carved out for it.

But relatively young men who die suddenly and leave you with ALL THE FEELINGS? 

You’re on your own.

I met Xavier when I was in high school. We were the best of friends, then dated and moved in together, which is when things began to fall apart. I left him in the middle of the night while he was away for the weekend and couch surfed until I got on my feet. Xavier was devastated, furious and terrifying. But I still loved him fiercely, even when I knew better.

Xavier stalked me incessantly for over a decade. I moved several times, contacted police (to no avail) and looked over my shoulder for years. To the outside world, I lived a normal and even successful life. I was building a career in feminist advocacy, was often seen speaking about violence against women in the media, and was paid to give workshops and lectures.

So, when I got the news that Xavier had died suddenly, the fragile foundation I had built my life upon, crumbled.

To everyone who knew my story, Xavier’s death spelled relief. “It’s over! You’re free now!”

But that’s not how this works.

As North Americans and westerners, we’re incredibly uncomfortable with death. We’ve built entire religions around our fear of dying, promising ourselves another world is on the other side—a weak attempt to comfort those left behind.

Our fear of mortality turns our dead into legends. Whether you’re talking Kurt Cobain or the girl you used to play soccer with back in the day, we love to paint blurry pictures of the dead as though they were flawless cherubs frozen in time.

You mustn’t speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves—but many of us can’t defend ourselves until the person is dead and gone.

I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that if I spoke out against Xavier while he was alive and free, I would pay for it. Best case scenario, he would do as so many abusers do and try to sue me. Worst case scenario was that I wouldn't live to see the end of the day.

In all the years we were friends and partners, Xavier never once hit me. He never even threatened to hit me. He never had to; he had some diligently eroded every part of my resolve that I learned to simply acquiesce in order to get it over with quickly. And that’s how he gained, and maintained, his power.

So, when he came home one weekend and found a note and all my stuff gone, he couldn’t reconcile what I had done with who he thought I was. And I believe that this fury is what fuelled the years and years of stalking and harassment. “I can’t have you, so nobody else can.”

Sure, I could date and live a relatively normal life, but he would ensure that he lived rent-free in my mind every single day— I was never, ever free from him.

Xavier loved to paint himself as the lovelorn romantic but he was never a victim. That is, until he died and died young, at that. The death of young white people is inherently tragic; a life cut short; a story left unwritten.

Speaking out against someone who has died is bad enough, but doing so about someone who died young? It is rarely done.

So, when my abuser passed away and I decided to go public about what I had survived for so long , I was navigating new territory. I was also left with the major question: What now?

To everyone who knew about how abusive Xavier was, the news of his death was unanimous: relief. Unequivocal “Thank Christ it’s fucking over.” Had I not survived such heinous suffering for so long, I would have thought the same thing. “Dude wouldn’t leave you alone. Dude is no longer here to hurt you. It’s over, girl! Exhale!”

But it’s complicated.

I’ve spent the last 13 years working to end violence against women. My “coming out” of surviving domestic violence and stalking shocked a lot of journalists I had worked with over the years, and the phone rang with dozens of interview requests. Truthfully, I can barely remember any of them. But I do remember a live radio interview where the host was clearly aiming for a cut and dry, happy ending to the story. He desperately wanted me to explain how free I felt. It pained me to burst his bubble as I kept repeating “It’s complicated and surreal.”

Xavier was the first major love of my life. I loved him truly and deeply and on bad days, I worry that I’ll never love anyone else the way I loved him.

Even when his behaviour was completely out of control; even when I had to call the police on him; even when I tried to take him to court; I never wanted Xavier hurt or in trouble. All I wanted was for him to stop. I certainly didn’t want him to die. I just wanted him to leave me alone.

It took countless hours and thousands of dollars of therapy to accept that Xavier was never going away. Accepting him as the one constant in my life was the sanest path I could take.

“Veer left”, said my therapist, “and connect with what power you do have. You can’t stop Xavier but you can control how his actions impact you. Accepting that he will never stop is important for lessening the blow every time you hear from him.”

I made peace with the monkey on my back— then the damn monkey leapt off and died.

A person I had once cared for very deeply has died.

A person who tortured me daily for years, has died.

A person, who led, by all other accounts, a very normal life, has died.

A person, who was never held accountable for his actions, has died.

The trauma bond never feels more real and salient then when your abuser dies. Xavier never acknowledged the violence he inflicted on me and spent years gaslighting me; he was the only living soul on this planet who was there. I could look him square in the eye and know I wasn’t crazy. He knew and I knew what was going on. That kind of bond is twisted and makes little sense to those around you, but it’s as real as your reflection in the mirror. Xavier and I were forever bonded by all the horrible things he put me through and now it’s just me. There’s nothing else left.

The violence in its immediate sense is over, but he continues to exist inside my head and in my nightmares and by all accounts, things will stay this way for a while.

But I’m alone now. And I don’t know how to feel about it.

What makes healing from this kind of trauma so difficult is that it was ongoing for so fucking long. For outsiders, it’s over. This man was abusive to me for a little over two years. I left him. He was awful to me for over a decade. He’s dead now. Story over. Dust yourself off and move on, because sister, the future's looking bright!

If only.

To heal from the domestic violence, I have to process and recover from how it spilled into 11 years of stalking. And you can never really start working on the trauma of stalking because we live in a culture in which “Bitches lie”; speaking out is its own form of trauma. 

So yeah, the guy died. His ability to monitor my behaviour, leave me threatening notes and have me constantly looking over my shoulder is technically over.

But now, the hard work of healing begins. The effects of stalking are horrendous and scary, but they are known to me. I’ve been broken in. I know what it feels like. But I’m now trading those in with a new, unknown set of feelings that are intangible and worse, rarely acknowledged by others.

There is certainly a choir that desperately wants me to feel guilty for “speaking ill of the dead”—but the reality is that it was Xavier that decided I could only have freedom without him. Only he had the power to make it all stop and he chose not to; time and time again. 

Xavier stalked me my entire adult life. Now I’m a grown ass woman who gets to decide for the first time in her life, what independence looks like. Sure, this is exciting stuff and long overdue. But I’m also terrified and woefully unprepared.

The news that Xavier had died completely leveled me. I had numerous panic attacks and found it hard to get out of bed. My friends and chosen family threw me a party to try and shake the cobwebs. I smoked an expensive cigar, ate metric tons of vegan candy and danced until my knees hurt. As it got dark, I snapped out of my euphoria and panicked. It was dark outside and light inside. People could see inside. I ran over to the window and clumsily fought with the curtains, without saying a word. 

A friend calmly walked over to me, put her hands on me and said “He’s not out there, Julie. It’s okay if people see inside.”

It’s okay if people see inside. It’s okay if people know my secret. It’s okay for me to tell.

It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.

I don’t know where to go next, but I’m starting with that.

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Julie S. Lalonde is a feminist buzzkill who works as a public educator and advocate for sexual assault survivors. She works with various organizations working to dismantle rape culture through bystander intervention and community accountability. Besides smashing the patriarchy, her other hobbies include devouring UFC fights, driving classic cars and pretty shoes.