Dispelling the Misconceptions

Author: Alan Wolfelt

About Suicide and Grief and Mourning

Excerpted from The Wilderness of Suicide Grief: Finding Your Way  

Misconception: A misconception is a mistaken notion you might have about something—in other words, something you believe to be true but that is not true. Misconceptions about grief are common in our society because we tend not to openly mourn or talk about grief and mourning. You can see how we’d have misconceptions about something as “in the closet” as suicide grief. 

man sad

As you journey through the wilderness of your suicide grief, if you mourn openly and authentically, you will come to find a path that feels right for you. But beware—others may try to pull you off this path. They may try to make you believe that the path you have chosen is wrong—even crazy—and that their way is better.

They have internalized some common misconceptions about suicide grief and mourning. And the misconceptions, in essence, deny you your right to hurt and authentically express your grief.

As you read, you may discover that you or people around you have believed in some of the misconceptions. Don’t condemn yourself or others. Simply make use of any new insights to help you open your heart to your work of mourning in ways that restore your soul.

Misconception: Grief and mourning are the same thing.

Perhaps you have noticed that people tend to use the words grieving and mourning interchangeably. There is an important distinction, however. Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. Mourning is taking the grief you have on the inside and expressing it outside of yourself. Over time and with the support of others, to mourn is to heal.

WARNING: After someone you love has completed suicide, your friends may encourage you to keep your grief to yourself. A catalyst for healing, however, can only be created when you develop the courage to mourn publicly, in the presence of understanding, compassionate people who will not judge you.

Misconception: Grief following a suicide death always results in “complicated” or “pathological” mourning.

Research indicates that survivors of suicide integrate grief at about the same pace as those who experience any kind of unanticipated death. Obviously, there can be some natural challenges, such as the combination of sudden shock, the natural question of “why?”, the trauma of witnessing or discovering the suicide, the lack of support from family and friends, and the potential of secondary victimization that results from cruel, judgmental, or insensitive comments, but do not let this misconception become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Do your work of mourning, and you will come out of the dark and into the light.

Misconception: Grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages.

The concept of stages was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s landmark text On Death and Dying. However, Dr. Kübler-Ross never intended for her stages to be interpreted as a rigid, linear sequence to be followed by all mourners. As a grieving person, you will probably encounter others who have adopted a rigid system of beliefs about what you should experience in your grief journey. And if you have internalized this misconception, you may also find yourself trying to prescribe your grief experience as well. Everyone mourns in different ways. Personal experience is your best teacher about where you are in your grief journey. Don’t think your goal is to move through prescribed stages of grief.

Misconception: We can always determine the “why” of a suicide death.

Why the person took his or her own life can be a painful yet natural question to explore, yet it’s a question for which there is often no clear, satisfactory answer. My experience with many survivors suggests that you may very slowly, with no rewards for speed, discover that is possible to live with the uncertainty of never fully knowing the answer. 

Misconception: All suicide survivors feel guilty.

 The sad reality is that some people will actually say directly to you, “I bet you feel guilty,” or pose the question, “Do you feel guilty?” This is one of the most prescribed responses for survivors of suicide. In reality, as a survivor you may or may not feel guilty. Besides, assuming you feel guilt is the opposite of my belief that you are the expert of your own experience and therefore you must teach me what you feel; I must not prescribe what you should feel.

Misconception: Only certain kinds of people complete suicide.

This is a simple misconception to dispel. The reality is that suicide is a stranger to no race, creed, religion, age group, or socioeconomic level. All kinds of people have completed suicide since the beginning of recorded history.

Misconception: Only a crazy person completes suicide.

While the person you loved who completed suicide may have been depressed, anxious, or hopeless, to be sure, most of us survivors don’t find comfort when people try to tell us the person was crazy. Not all people who complete suicide meet some formal criteria for mental illness, and even when they do, we don’t need to hear that they were crazy. 

Misconception: It is a sin to complete suicide, and the person who does goes directly to hell.

As one Catholic priest observed about suicide, “When its victims wake on the other side, they are met by a gentle Christ who stands right inside of their huddled fear and says, ‘Peace be with you!’ As we see in the gospels, God can go through locked doors, breathe out peace in places where we cannot get in, and write straight with even the most crooked of lines.” Personally, I believe there are no limits to God’s compassion. God mourns with us. If God’s nature is one of steadfast mercy and love, then this is a misconception we need to keep educating the world about.

Misconception: Suicide is inherited and runs in the family.

Be alert for uninformed people who may project to you that because someone in your family completed suicide, you may have the same fate. This projection is not supported by the facts. Scientific research has not at this time confirmed a genetic basis for suicide risk. 

Misconception: Tears of grief are only a sign of weakness.

Tears of grief are often associated with personal inadequacy and weakness. The worst thing you can do, however, is to allow this judgment to prevent you from crying. Sometimes, the people who care about you may, directly or indirectly, try to prevent your tears out of a desire to protect you (and them) from pain. You may hear comments like, “Tears won’t bring him back,” or “He wouldn’t want you to cry.” Yet crying is nature’s way of releasing internal tension in your body, and it allows you to communicate a need to be comforted.

Misconception: Being upset and openly mourning means you are being weak in your faith.

Watch out for those who think that having faith and openly mourning are mutually exclusive. If you are mad at God, be mad at God. Similarly, if you need a time-out from regular worship, don’t shame yourself. When and if you are ready, attending a church, synagogue, or other place of worship, reading scripture, and praying are only a few ways you might want to express your faith. Or, you may be open to less conventional ways, such as meditating or spending time alone in nature. 

Now that we’ve reviewed the common misconceptions of grief, let’s wrap up this article by listing some of the “conceptions.” These are some realities you can hold onto as you journey toward healing.

Realistic expectations for grief and mourning 

You will naturally grieve, but you will probably have to make a conscious effort to mourn.

  • Your grief and mourning will involve a wide variety of different thoughts and feelings. 
  • Your grief and mourning will impact you in all five realms of experience: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual.
  • You need to feel it to heal it. 
  • Your grief will probably hurt more before it hurts less. 
  • Your grief will be unpredictable and will not likely progress in an orderly fashion.
  • You don’t “get over” grief; you learn to live with it.
  • You need other people to help you through your grief. 
  • You will not always feel this bad.  

Alan WolfeltBy Dr. Alan Wolfelt, PhD: Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School's Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your GriefThe Mourner's Book of Hope, and The Depression of Grief, from which this article was excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt's books.