Dispelling the Misconceptions About Suicide and Grief and Mourning

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

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.

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. That is your path to healing. 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.

The reason that people try to pull you from the path is that 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. They often cause unrealistic expectations about the grief experience. To integrate this loss into your soul, you must first be willing to unlearn the following misconceptions about suicide and grief and mourning.

As you read about this important concept, you may discover that you yourself have believed in some of the misconceptions and that some may be embraced by people around you. Don't condemn yourself or others for believing in them. They can seem like common sense, and it is also easy to believe something about which you have no actual experience. Simply make use of any new insights you might gain to help you open your heart to your work of mourning in ways that restore your soul.

Misconception 1: 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. We as humans move toward integrating loss into our lives not just by grieving, but by mourning. You will move toward reconciliation not just by grieving, but through active and intentional mourning.

Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. Think of grief as the container. It holds all of your thoughts, feelings, and images of your experience when you are bereaved. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss.

Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the inside and express it outside of yourself. Another way of defining mourning is "grief gone public" or "the outward expression of grief." Talking about the person who died, crying, expressing your thoughts and feelings through art or music, and celebrating special anniversary dates that held meaning for the person who died are just a few examples of mourning.

WARNING: After someone you love has competed suicide, your friends may encourage you to keep your grief to yourself. If you were to take this message to heart, the disastrous result would be that all of your thoughts and feelings would stay neatly bottled up inside you. 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. At times, of course, you will grieve alone, but expressing your grief outside of yourself is necessary if you are to slowly and gently move forward in your grief journey.

I think it's so interesting that many native cultures actually create vessels, usually baskets, pots, or bowls, that symbolically contained their grief. They would put these vessels away for periods of time, only to bring them out on a regular basis to help themselves mourn.

Another way to think about what these cultures were instinctively doing was dosing themselves with their grief. As I've said, grief must be embraced little by little, in small bits, with breaks in between. This dosing helps you survive what would, if absorbed in its totality all at once, probably kill you.

When you don't honor a death loss by acknowledging it, first to yourself and then to those around you, the grief will accumulate. Then the denied losses come flowing out in all sorts of potential ways (e.g., deep depression, physical complaints, difficulty in relationships, addictive behaviors), compounding the pain of your loss.

Misconception 2: Grief following a suicide death always results in "complicated" or "pathological" mourning.

Actually, there is research that indicates that survivors of suicide integrate grief at about the same pace as those who experience any kind of unanticipated death. This misconception could have you believing that you should suffer longer.

This does not mean that a suicide death won't be viewed differently. 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. Yes, you will have griefbursts (and naturally do some "catch-up" mourning as you continue with your life, 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 3: Grief and mourning progress in predictable, orderly stages.

Probably you have already heard about the stages of grief. This type of thinking about dying, grief, and mourning is appealing but inaccurate. The notion of stages helps people make sense of death, an experience that is usually not orderly or predictable. If we believe that everyone grieves by going through the same stages, then death and grief become much less mysterious and fearsome. If only it were so simple!

The concept of "stage" was popularized in 1969 with the publication of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's landmark text On Death and Dying. In this important book, Dr. Kübler-Ross lists the five stages of grief that she saw terminally ill patients experience in the face of their own impending deaths: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. However, Dr. Kübler-Ross never intended for her stages to be interpreted as a rigid, linear sequence to be followed by all mourners. Readers, however, have done just that, and the consequences have often been disastrous.

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. Instead of allowing yourself to be where you are, you may try to force yourself to be in another "stage."

For example, the common responses of disorganization, fear, guilt, and explosive emotions may or may not occur during your unique grief journey. Or relief may occur anywhere along the way and invariably overlap another part of your response. Sometimes your emotions may follow each other within a short period of time; or, at other times, two or more emotions may be present simultaneously. Remember—do not try to determine where you "should" be. Just allow yourself to be naturally where you are in the process.

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. Your grief is unique. That word means "only one." No one ever existed exactly like you before, and no one will ever be exactly like you again. As part of the healing process, the thoughts and feelings you will experience will be totally unique to you.

Misconception 4: We can always determine the "whys?" of a suicide death.

You may naturally have some of what I like to refer to as psycho-spiritual "why?" questions. You may search for answers, look for clues, and try to make sense of the "why?" of this person's death. Do not punish yourself for this instinctive response to trauma loss. Why did the person do this can be a painful yet natural question to explore. As a matter of fact, watch out for well-intentioned people who sa,y "Don't ask why; it doesn't do you any good." Those people often do not understand the normalcy of how "why?" questions precede "how?" questions. "Why did this happen?" is part of the pathway to get yourself to "How will I survive that he or she did this?" Again, do not shame yourself if you find this is part of your journey.

Having acknowledged the normalcy of "why?" questions, detailed investigation of the factors that can lead to a suicide death demonstrate that there are usually many reasons people take their own lives. These signs may be unknown or masked to family members and friends. In fact, they are often not even able to be seen by the person who completes suicide.

So, the misconception is that we always know why, when the reality is we often don't know the specifics of why. 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 to "why?"

Misconception 5: 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. Many books about suicide survivorship give the most coverage to the topic of guilt.

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.

People do not know how you feel unless they give you the opportunity to teach them. People do not automatically assume survivors feel guilty after a death from a heart attack or cancer. Therefore, we should not assume guilt after a suicide death. Many survivors have worked long and hard to help someone prior to a suicide death.

As one astute person noted, "This assumption, from the Dark Ages, that we should have some brand to show people of guilt and shame from having a suicide in the family lives on." So, if you are experiencing guilt, find a safe place with caring people where you can explore it But, I plead with you, do not assume you have to feel guilty.

Misconception 6: 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, income bracket, or socioeconomic level. All kinds of people have completed suicide since the beginning of recorded history.

Misconception 7: 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 suicides meet some formal criteria for mental illness, and even when they do, we don't need to hear that they were crazy.

Related to this, according to the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), approximately two-thirds of people who complete suicide are depressed, and the risk of suicide in people with major depression is about twenty times that of the general population. Depression, often undiagnosed and untreated, is the major cause of suicide.

Again, some people will think they are helping you when they claim your loved one must have been crazy. However, this does not lighten your burden and uplift your spirit. And, it is not a good use of language to assist in your understanding. Even when the person you cared about so deeply had a diagnosable mental illness, we don't need to use the word crazy.

Misconception 8: It is a sin to complete suicide, and the person who does goes directly to hell.

It was not all that long ago that suicide was considered a sin by many of the major bodies of faith. Historically, it was considered by many not just be a sin, but an unpardonable sin.

Thank God we now have religious leaders and well-respected theologians who are compassionately and non-judgmentally educating people that suicide is not a sin. 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 g through locked doors, breathe out peace in places where we cannot get in, and write straight with even the most crooked of lines." But watch out for some people who do continue to preach this. Find people who recognize that faith is about being open to the mystery. I always like to remind myself that "mystery"—the ancient name for God—is something to be pondered, not explained. If someone starts preaching to you that suicide is a sin and that your loved one has gone to hell, get the hell away from them as fast as you can.

Personally, I believe there are no limits to God's compassion. God mourns with us. He doesn't send our loved ones to "burn in hell" as someone might try to tell you. If you believe as I do that God's nature is one of steadfast mercy and love, than we realize this is a misconception we need to keep educating the world about.

Misconception 9: 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. Please do not listen to people who try to tell you are doomed to one day complete suicide.

Having acknowledged the obvious, we do know through research that substance abuse disorders, depression disorders, and schizophrenia tend to run in families. However, even if you have family members who have died by suicide after having suffered from these types of disorders, you are not predestined to complete suicide. So, again, do not let anyone tell you that you are.

Instead, if you are just being wise and self-compassionate, you will use this research information to do what you can to reduce your risk. This can include educating yourself about the warning signs related to risk for suicide, not abusing alcohol or drugs, and not hesitating to seek help whenever you may need it.

Misconception 10: You should move away from suicide grief, not toward it.

Our society often encourages prematurely moving away from grief instead of toward it. The result is that too many mourners either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means.

During ancient times, stoic philosophers encouraged their followers not to mourn, believing that self-control was the appropriate response to sorrow. Today, well-intentioned but uninformed relatives and friends still carry this long-held tradition. While the outward expression of grief is a requirement for healing, overcoming society's powerful message to repress can be difficult.

As a counselor, I am often asked, "How long should grief last?" This question directly relates to our culture's impatience with grief and the desire to move people away from the experience of mourning. Shortly after the death, for example, mourners are expected to be "back to normal."

Mourners who continue to express grief outwardly are often viewed as "weak," "crazy," or "self-pitying." The subtle message is, "Shape up and get on with your life." The reality is disturbing: Far too many people view grief as something to be overcome rather than experienced.

The messages, unfortunately, encourage you to repress your thoughts and feelings about the death. By doing so, you may refuse to cry. And refusing to allow tears, suffering in silence, and "being strong" are often considered admirable behaviors. Many people have internalized society's message that mourning should be done quietly, quickly, and efficiently—particularly when the death results from suicide. Don't let this happen to you.

After the death of someone loved, you also may respond to the question, "How are you?" with the benign response, "I'm fine." When you respond in this way, in essence you are saying to the world, "I'm not mourning." Friends, family, and coworkers may encourage this stance. Why? Because they don't want to talk about death. So if you demonstrate an absence of mourning behavior, it tends to be more socially acceptable.

This collaborative pretense about mourning, however, does not meet your needs in grief. When your grief is ignored or minimized, you will feel further isolated in your journey. Ultimately, you will experience the onset of the "going crazy" syndrome. (Masking or moving away from your grief creates anxiety, confusion, and depression. If you receive little or no social recognition related to your pain, you will probably begin to fear that your thoughts and feelings are abnormal.

Remember—society will often encourage you to prematurely move away from your suicide grief. You must continually remind yourself that leaning toward, not away from, the pain will facilitate the eventual healing.

Misconception 11: 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. While your tears may result in feelings of helplessness for your friends, family, and caregivers, you must not let others stifle your need to mourn openly.

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.

While data is still limited, research suggests that suppressing tears may actually increase your susceptibility to stress-related disorders. It makes sense. Crying is one of the excretory processes. Perhaps like sweating and exhaling, crying helps remove waste products from the body.

The capacity to express tears appears to allow for genuine healing. In my experience counseling suicide survivors, I have even observed changes in physical expression after crying. Not only do people feel better after they cry, they also seem to look better. Tension and agitation seem to flow out of their bodies.

You must be vigilant about guarding yourself against this misconception. Tears are not a sign of weakness or inadequacy. In fact, your capacity to share tears is an indication of your willingness to do the work of mourning.

Misconception 12: 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. Sometimes people fail to remember those important words of wisdom: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

Above all, mourning is a spiritual journey of the heart and soul. If faith or spirituality is a part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. If you are mad at God, be mad at God. Actually, being angry at God speaks of having a relationship with God in the first place. I've always said to myself and others, "God has been doing very well for some time now, so I think God can handle my anger." Grief expressed is often grief diminished.

Similarly, if you need a time-out from regular worship, don't shame yourself. Going to exile for a period of time often assists in your healing. If people try to drag you to a place of worship, dig your heels in and tell them you may go, but only when and if you are ready.

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. To explore ways of expressing your spirituality, see the book Healing Your Grieving Soul: 100 Spiritual Practices.

Don't let people take our grief away from you in the name of faith.

Misconception 13: When someone you love completes suicide, you only grieve and mourn for the physical loss of the person.

When someone you love completes suicide, you don't just lose the presence of that person. As a result of the death, you may lose many other connections to yourself and the world around you. Sometimes I outline these potential losses, or what we call "secondary losses," as follows:

Loss of self

self("I feel like part of me died when he died.")
identity(You may have to rethink your role as husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter, best friend, etc.)
self-confidence(Some grievers experience lowered self-esteem. Naturally, you may have lost one of the people in your life who gave you confidence.)
health(Physical symptoms of mourning.)/
personality("I just don't feel like myself...")
fiscal security(You may have financial concerns or have to learn to manage finances in ways you didn't before.)
lifestyle(Your lifestyle has changed and no longer feels safe.)

Loss of meaning

goals and dreams(Hopes and dreams for the future can be shattered.)
faith(You may question your faith.)
will/desire to live(You may have questions related to future meaning in your life. You may ask, "Why go on...?")
joy(Life's most precious emotion, happiness, is naturally compromised by the death of someone we love.)

You may also experience secondary victimization. This is when, in this time of great loss and vulnerability in your life, someone knowingly or unknowingly victimizes you further by shaming you, accusing you, or otherwise making you feel even worse about the death. For example, someone whose son had taken his own life was told by a friend whose child has also died, "Your child chose to die. Mine didn't." Comments like those are not only hurtful, they may compound your already complicated feelings of grief.

Allowing yourself tocknowledge the many levels of loss the suicide death has brought to your life will help you continue to stay open to your unique grief journey.

Misconception 14: You should try not to think about the person who completed suicide on holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays.

As with all things in grief, trying not to think about something that your heart and soul are nudging you to think about is a bad idea. On special occasions such as holidays, anniversaries such as wedding dates and the day the person died, and your birthday or the birthday of the person who died, it's natural for your grief to well up inside of you and spill over—even long after the death itself.

It may seem logical that if you can only avoid thinking about the person who died on these special days—maybe you can cram your day so tight that you don't have a second to spare—then you can avoid some heartache. What I would ask you is this: Where does that heartache go if you don't let it out when it naturally arises? It doesn't disappear. It simply bides its time, patiently at first, then urgently, like a caged animal pacing behind bars.

No doubt you have some family and friends who may attempt to perpetuate this misconception. Actually, they are really trying to protect themselves in the name of protecting you.

While you may feel particularly sad and vulnerable during these times, remember – these feelings are honest expressions of the real you. Whatever you do, don't overextend yourself during these times. Don't feel you have to shop, bake, entertain, send cards, etc. if you're not feeling up to it.

Instead of avoiding these days, you may want to commemorate the life of the person who died by doing something he or she would have appreciated. On his birthday, what could you do to honor his special passions? On the anniversary of her death, what could you do to remember her life? You might want to spend these times in the company of people who help you feel safe and cared for.

Misconception 15: After someone you love completes suicide, the goal should be to "get over" your grief as soon as possible.

You may already have heard the question, "Are you over it yet?" Or, even worse, be told, "Well, you should be over it by now!" To think that as a human being you "get over" your grief is ludicrous! You don't get over it, you learn to live with it. You learn to integrate it into your life and into the fabric of your being. Suffice it to say that you never "get over" your grief. As you become willing to do the work of your mourning, however, you can and will become reconciled to it. Unfortunately, when the people around you think you have to get over your grief, they set you up to fail. Actually the more you try to get over your suicide grief, the more you sabotage your healing.

Misconception16: Nobody can help you with your grief.

We have all heard people say, "Nobody can help you but yourself." Or you may have been told since childhood, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." Yet, in reality, perhaps the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself at this difficult time is to reach out for help from others.

Think of it this way: Grieving and mourning may be the hardest work you have ever done. And hard work is less burdensome when others lend a hand. Life's greatest challenges – getting through school, raising children, and pursuing a career – are in many ways team efforts. So it should be with mourning.

Sharing your pain with others won't make it disappear, but it will, over time, make it more bearable. By definition, mourning (i.e., the outward expression of grief) requires that you get support from sources outside of yourself. Reaching out for help also connects you to other people and strengthens the bonds of love that make life seem worth living again.

Misconception 17: When grief and mourning are finally reconciled, they never come up again.

Oh, if only this were so. As your experience has probably already taught you, grief comes in and out like waves from the ocean. Sometimes when you least expect it, a huge wave comes along and pulls your feet right out from under you.

Sometimes heightened periods of sadness overwhelm us when we're in grief—even years after the death. These times can seem to come out of nowhere and can be frightening and painful. Something as simple as a sound, a smell, or phrase can bring on what I call "griefbursts." My friend Ken loved the Wisconsin Badgers football team. Every time I see something on TV about that team I have a griefburst.

Allow yourself to experience griefbursts without shame or self-judgment, no matter where or when they occur. Sooner or later, one will probably happen when you're surrounded by other people, maybe even strangers. If you would feel more comfortable, retreat to somewhere more private, or go see someone you know who will understand, when these strong feelings surface.

You will always, for the rest of your life, feel some grief over this death. It will no longer dominate your life, but it will always be there, in the background, reminding you about the love you had for the person who died.

Keep in mind that the misconceptions about grief and mourning explored in this chapter are certainly not all the misconceptions about suicide grief and mourning.

When surrounded by people who believe these misconceptions, you will probably feel a heightened sense of isolation. If the people who are closest to you are unable to emotionally and spiritually support you without judging you, seek out others who can. Usually, the ability to be supportive without judging is most developed in people who have been on a grief journey themselves and are willing to be with you during this difficult time. When you are surrounded by people who can distinguish the misconceptions of grief from the realities, you can and will experience the healing you deserve.

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 Grieving and Mourning