In an interesting guest post on the Christian Works blog, Alan Wolfelt, PhD, presented some misconceptions about grief after a suicide. I want his words to do all the talking on this subject because I believe he is offering much to integrate into our thinking.
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 to not 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. But, beware – others my try to pull you off this path. They may try and 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 abut suicide grief and mourning. And the misconceptions, in essence, deny you your right to hurt and authentically express your grief.
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 having believed in them. 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 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 when you take the grief you have inside and express 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 publicly, in the presence of understanding, compassionate people who will not judge you.
MISCONCEPTION: GRIEF FOLLOWING 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 combination of sudden chock, 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 sulfa-fulfilling prophecy. Do your work of mourning, and you will come out of the dark 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’ 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 misconceptions, 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 ‘WHYS?’ OF A SUICIDE DEATH.
Why the person took his or her own life can be a painful, yet natural, question to explore, but it is 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 it is possible to live with the uncertainty of never fully knowing the answer to ‘why?’
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 guilty 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, ADN 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 judgement 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 YOU 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, is 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.
MISCONCEPTION: WHEN SOMEONE YOU LOVE COMPLETES SUICIDE, YOU ONLY GRIEVE AND MORN 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. These secondary losses can include:
Loss of Self
- self (“I feel like port 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 do on…?”)
- joy (Life’s most precious emotion, happiness, is naturally compromised by the death of someone we love.)
Allowing yourself to acknowledge 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.
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.
© 2011 Alan D. Wolfelt