Taboo and the different death? Perceptions of those bereaved by suicide or other traumatic death

Sociol Health Illn. 2015 May;37(4):610-25. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12224. Epub 2015 Feb 13.


Views differ on how far the subject of death has ever been taboo in Western Society. Walter (1991) criticised the way the 'taboo thesis' has been presented, arguing that it has often been 'grossly overdrawn and lacking in subtlety'. Research suggests that suicide and other traumatic death may be particularly difficult for people to talk about or even acknowledge. We interviewed 80 people bereaved due to suicide, or other traumatic death and used interpretative thematic analysis to consider whether the 'death taboo' is evident in these bereavement narratives. People referred to suicide as a different, even stigmatised, death but we also found that those bereaved through other traumatic death felt that their reactions had to be contained and relatively silent. The exception was those bereaved through terrorism or train crash, who were encouraged to grieve openly and angrily: reactions to deaths which are seen as 'private troubles' differ from reactions to deaths which are seen as 'public issues'. Using a symbolic interactionist approach we conclude that the shock and suddenness of the death is tied up both with the circumstances of the death (suicide, murder, accident, terrorism) and the attendant consequences for the social acceptance of public displays of mourning.

Keywords: bereavement; stigma; suicide; taboo; traumatic death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bereavement
  • Cause of Death*
  • Female
  • Grief*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Suicide / psychology*
  • Taboo / psychology*