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Cult Withdrawal: More Painful than Grieving a Death

The bluegrass band Monroe Crossing plays a poignant version of an old song, Far Side Bank of Jordan, which speaks emotionally about being reunited with loved ones in Heaven:

And I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan
I’ll be sitting drawing pictures in the sand
And when I see you coming, I will rise up with a shout
And come running through the shallow waters,
reaching for your hand
In every culture and religion, the bereaved have hope. They look forward to that loving reunion with their family on the Far Side Bank of Jordan. Death cannot kill love, the bereaved like to say. Hope, that most powerful emotion still trapped in Pandora’s box, tempers grief and softens loss.
When you leave a cult, a cult-like religion, a cultish family, you don’t have that hope anymore. Love has died. There is no loving reunion to anticipate. That’s why cult withdrawal is more agonizing than grieving death.

In this article, we’ll discuss four things:
  1. What is a cult?
  2. Cult withdrawal in death
  3. Cult withdrawal in life
  4. Grief

What Is A Cult?

Cult Research gives a complete list of the attributes used to identify a religious cult, so I won’t repeat them here. I always say, “It’s about the dynamics, not some whacky doctrine. Any institution or family need not be religious to function exactly like a cult.”

Once you escape a cult, you can almost smell them. Their vibe creates “a disturbance in The Force.” At first, they may merely seem a little too happy. Everyone is a little too enmeshed, entangled, intimate, emotionally incestuous with each other — punishing the slightest individuality, love-bombing to reward uniformity. And everyone feels they’re not okay, they’re the problem, they’ll never be good enough.

Scratch a cult; you’ll find a narcissist calling the shots.

Cult Withdrawal in Life

When a loved one dies, most people comfort themselves with the thought that death cannot kill love. Someday, they will see their loved one again:

We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again
And you’ll be here in my arms
Just sleeping
And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West
When you go No Contact with a narcissistic, cult-like family, it feels like all their love for you dies. Just dies. Whether you were the love-bombed Golden Child or the neglected Scapegoat, their behavior seems to make it very clear that their love for you, if they ever had any, has died.
Were you to meet on that White Shore, your nearest and dearest would turn on their heel and stride away from you. Give you the silent treatment for Eternity. And why? Because you dared! Dared to actually have a life of your own. Dared to stop submitting yourself to be repeatedly hurt. And, the worst crime of all, dared to tell them the truth about themselves.
Let’s be honest. The victims of narcissistic abuse often think of Hell as the presence of their abusers. But what about their flying monkeys? Nice, naive, weak, codependent people who were used and duped by the narcissists into doing their dirty work? Some flying monkeys are very loving, left to their own devices. Did they also cease to love us? Will we run into each other’s arms on the White Shore, them full of contrition and us full of forgiveness.
I’d like to think so.

Cult Withdrawal in Life

The pain of losing family members to death was child’s play compared to my agony of living with cult withdrawal in life.

When you physically leave any type of cult, your mind remains brainwashed far longer than it takes to pack up your belongings and get the Hell out of Dodge. This means that wherever you go, your guts scream you are in the wrong. Whatever you do is wrong, wrong, wrong. Wherever you live is wrong, wrong, wrong. Whomever you befriend, love, marry is wrong, wrong, wrong. The very walls of your new home begin to look and feel wrong.

YOU are completely wrong.

It attacks that most painful part of our being: our self-esteem. That’s how cults control. By giving and removing self-esteem. When we do everything they want, we’re love-bombed. Stray one iota, we’re damned. No chains are necessary when they own your self-esteem.

I once heard a story of a woman in a cult who was the perfect, model cult member. She rose early to pray. Baked her own bread. Sang in the choir. Whatever her cult asked of her, she did with gusto.

Then one day, her husband noticed a change. Her joie de vivre was gone. She wasn’t trying. It was like she’d just given up. When he questioned her, she admitted, “I can’t do it anymore. I can’t! If that means I’m going to Hell, so be it.”

Leaving a cult-like dynamic may take that what-the-Hell attitude. A teeth-gritted, white-knuckled determination to leave the source of your misery, even if that means damnation. It may take years before you intellectually realize you did nothing wrong. And even longer for the false guilt to weaken.  It may never go away entirely. You will never do anything harder than living day-to-day with cult withdrawal.

It takes tremendous strength not to go screaming back to your cult, throw yourself on the ground at their feet, embrace their ankles and beg them to love you and approve of you once again. Just so you can feel good about yourself again. Just to assuage your wounded self-esteem. Just so you can feel right instead of wrong, wrong, wrong.


To live in cult withdrawal is the grief of a living death. It is the grief of knowing that your family actually believes you are the problem, you have done the unthinkable, you are a Bad Person, you are Eternally damned.

The grief over the people you loved the most, whose good opinion meant the most to you, who now look down upon you from the confines of their cult with disapproval, disgust and worst of all, disappointment.

The grief that these same people had the opportunity to escape with you, but chose to remain, to go back, to shut their minds to freedom and peace.

The grief that there will be no reconciliation on this shore or any shore, even Jordan.

I would not wish cult withdrawal on my worst enemy.

Cult Withdrawal: More Painful than Grieving a Death

Lenora Thompson

Lenora Thompson is a syndicated Huffington Post freelance writer and food blogger. Her readers call her the "Edward Snowden" and "Wikileaks" of narcissism because of her no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners approach to writing about narcissism. “Narcissism Meets Normalcy” is the real-life, ongoing story of her healing journey from being held “hostage” by a multi-generational, cult-like narcissistic family. It's gritty and real, bloody and bruised, humorous and sarcastic. Lenora Thompson considers herself a “whistleblower,” shining a spotlight on narcissistic abuse so others can also claim their freedom and experience healing. To learn more about Lenora, her husband Michael's heroic battle with Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis and to read her writings about food, please visit Thank you!

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APA Reference
Thompson, L. (2018). Cult Withdrawal: More Painful than Grieving a Death. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Apr 2018
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