The Wilderness of Suicide Grief: Finding Your Way

The Wilderness of Suicide Grief: Finding Your Way

by Alan D. Wolfelt

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Presenting the idea of wilderness as a sustained metaphor for grief, this compassionate guide explores the unique responses inherent to the grief felt by those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one and offers information about coping with such a profound loss. Likening the death of a loved one to the experience of being wrenched from normal life and

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Presenting the idea of wilderness as a sustained metaphor for grief, this compassionate guide explores the unique responses inherent to the grief felt by those who have experienced the suicide of a loved one and offers information about coping with such a profound loss. Likening the death of a loved one to the experience of being wrenched from normal life and dropped down in the middle of nowhere, the handbook employs 10 touchstones, or trail markers, that survivors use to begin to make their way through the new landscape. Each touchstone gently guides readers through the entire grieving process and includes topics such as dispelling misconceptions regarding suicide, exploring feelings, and embracing the uniqueness of a loss.

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Companion Press
Publication date:
Understanding Your Grief Series
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Product dimensions:
7.46(w) x 11.34(h) x 0.59(d)

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The Wilderness of Suicide Grief

Finding Your Way

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2010 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-879651-68-5



Open to the Presence of Your Loss

"In every heart there is an inner room, where we can hold our greatest treasures and our deepest pain."

- Marianne Williamson

Someone you love has completed suicide. In your heart, you have come to know your deepest pain. To be "bereaved" literally means "to be torn apart." You have a broken heart, and your life has been turned upside down.

While it is instinctive to want to run as far away as possible from the overwhelming pain that comes with this loss, you have probably already discovered that even if you try to hide, deny, or self-treat your pain, it is still within you, demanding your attention. In acknowledging the inevitability of the pain and raw suffering that come with this grief, in coming to understand the need to gently embrace the pain, you in effect honor the pain.

The word honor literally means recognizing the value of and respecting. It is not instinctive to see the grief that erupts following a suicide death and the need to mourn as things to honor. But I hope you discover, as I have, that to honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is self-sustaining and life-giving.

You have probably been taught that pain is an indication that something is wrong and that you should find a way to alleviate the pain. In our culture, the role of pain and suffering is misunderstood. This is particularly true with suicide grief. Because of the stigma and taboo surrounding suicide, many people think you shouldn't talk about it, let alone honor your pain by openly mourning.

In part, this book will encourage you to be present to your multitude of thoughts and feelings, to "be with" them, for they contain the truth you are searching for, the energy you may be lacking, and the unfolding of your eventual healing.

Setting Your Intention to Heal

It takes a true commitment to heal in your grief. Yes, you are wounded, but with commitment and intention you can and will become whole again. Intention is defined as being conscious of what you want to experience. A close cousin to "affirmation," it is using the power of positive thought to produce a desired result.

When you set your intention to heal, you make a true commitment to positively influence the course of your journey. You probably know the cliché: "Time heals all wounds." Yet, time alone does not heal the wounds of grief that come with suicide. I like to remind myself and other survivors that healing waits on welcome, not on time! Healing and integrating this loss into your life demand that you engage actively in the grief journey.

A Vital Distinction: Shock Versus Denial

Shock, along with elements of denial, is a temporary, healthy response that essentially says, "The reality of the suicide death of someone dear to me is too painful to acknowledge right now. Therefore I refuse to believe it." While this is a natural initial reaction to suicide, you will hinder your eventual healing if you stay in long-term denial.

There are various forms of denial that, as a survivor, you must work to break through:

Conscious Denial: This is where you hide the fact that the death was suicide. You may tell people it was a heart attack, murder, or an unexplained sudden death.

Innocent Denial: This is where you hold onto the hope that the findings that ruled the death a suicide were a mistake and will be changed at a later date.

Blame as Denial: This is where you blame someone else for the suicide, thereby denying the choice someone made to take his or her own life.

Pretense and Denial: This is where the unwritten family rule is that you never talk about the death or use the word suicide at any time.

The motivations for these types of denial are multiple and complex. Often, people don't even realize they are in denial. So, if you discover you have gone beyond shock into some form of prolonged denial, do not shame or ridicule yourself.

But here is the problem: By staying in denial, you miss the opportunity to do the grief work related to your feelings. Until denial is broken through and the pain is experienced, you are on hold and authentic mourning cannot take place.

Face Any Inappropriate Expectations

You are at risk for having inappropriate expectations about this death. These expectations result from common societal messages that tell you to "be strong" in the face of life losses. Invariably, some well-intentioned people around you will urge you to "move on," "let go," "keep your chin up," and "keep busy." Actually, you need to give yourself as much time as you need to mourn, and these kinds of comments hurt you, not help you.

Society often makes mourners feel shame or embarrassment about our feelings of grief, particularly suicide grief. It implies that if you, as a grieving person, openly express your feeling of grief, you are being immature. If your feelings are fairly intense, you may be labeled overly emotional or needy. If your feelings are extremely intense, you may even be referred to as crazy or a "pathological mourner."

As a professional grief counselor, I assure you that you are not immature, overly emotional, or crazy. But the societal messages surrounding grief that you may receive are!

If you fear emotions and see them as negative, you will be at risk for crying alone and in private. Yet, being secretive with your emotions doesn't integrate your painful feelings of loss; it complicates them. Then even more pain comes from trying to keep the pain secret. You cannot hide your feelings and find renewed meaning in your life. If you are dishonest about your pain, you stay in pain.

Grief Is Not a Disease

You have probably already discovered that no quick fix exists for the pain you are enduring. Grief following a suicide is naturally complex, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But I promise you that if you can think, feel, and see yourself as an active participant in your healing, you will slowly but surely experience a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Grief is not a disease. To be human means coming to know loss as part of your life. While the grief that accompanies suicide is a powerful, life -changing experience, so, too, is your ability to help facilitate your own healing.

I invite you to gently confront the pain of your grief. Be open to the miracle of healing. Integrating the grief that comes with a suicide death requires your willingness. You must have willingness or you would not have picked up this book. Follow your willingness and allow it to bless you.

In large part, healing from a suicide death is anchored in a decision to not judge yourself but to love yourself. Grief is a call for love. So, if you are judging yourself and where you are in this journey, STOP! When you stop judging the multitude of emotions that come with your grief, you are left with acceptance, and when you have acceptance (or surrender), you have love. Love will lead you into and through the wilderness, to a place where you will come out of the dark and into the light.


Dispel the Misconceptions About Suicide and Grief and Mourning

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. 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 about this important Touchstone, 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 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 you have when someone you love dies. Mourning is when you take the grief you have on the 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 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 from others, 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 own 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, 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 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 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.

Misconception: 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. These secondary losses can include:

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.)

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 Touchstone Two 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.


Excerpted from The Wilderness of Suicide Grief by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2010 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is a speaker, a grief counselor, the director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, and the author of several books, including Healing Your Grieving Heart, The Journey Through Grief, and Understanding Your Grief. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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