Anger: one of the famous seven stages of grief, something that many of us can expect to feel when we eventually go through it. And yet it’s a stage that so many of us fear or try to suppress, most likely thanks to the extremely negative connotations associated with an emotion like anger. Perhaps it’s because anger is so often associated with destruction or even violence, we forget that it’s as much of a valid emotion as sadness or despair, both emotions more socially acceptable when in a state of grieving.
However, this is a very natural and normal part of the grieving process. Anger need not be a destructive force if understood and dealt with appropriately. While taking out our anger on others is never acceptable, no matter how much we are grieving, there are ways in which we can tackle this energy and channel it in a way that is not only not destructive to others, but also to ourselves.
Why do we feel anger when we grieve?
The first step to conquering anger as a part of the grieving process is to understand why we feel it in the first place. Anger is essentially our natural way of attempting to rationalise something and failing to do so. After all, death doesn’t always have a sensible or logical reason, and even when it does, it can still feel unfair. Our brains are not good at being rational when in a state of grief. The death of a loved one, while it might be accepted on an intellectual level, it needs to be accepted on an emotional one too.
Anger also comes from the understanding of just how little control we have over life and death, a concept that is profoundly uncomfortable for us to come to terms with. As humans, we like to think that we have ultimate control over everything we want, especially in an age when science and medicine can do so much for our life expectancies. When the inevitable happens, we lash out, whether it be at the doctors who looked after our loved ones, or those closest to us who are an “easy target” for our rage.
The natural angry response to grief can also be exacerbated when combined with an inability to express oneself. This is a common problem in male circles in which men feel unable to share their feelings with one another due to their socialised belief that they must always be stoic and strong for those around them. Naturally, this does not lead to anything positive and that repressed anger only has further room to fester and grow.
Finally, anger can manifest itself when faced with a death that objectively seems unfair. This kind of anger may come about as a result of someone dying of a terminal illness or a tragic accident, regardless of whether it was avoidable. Deaths in young people and children can also provoke this sort of rage at the seeming injustice in the world of the “wrong” people dying.
What does anger look like?
Anger, especially in the context of grief, doesn’t always express itself in outright rage. Often it’s shown in much more subtle ways and is split between the anger we feel towards ourselves and the anger we feel towards other people.
Anger felt at yourself usually comes from guilt relating to something that happened or didn’t happen during their lifetime. For example, if your last words to each other were a fight or if there was something unspoken that never had a chance to be said, that can reflect back onto you in the form of anger. The same is true if you tell yourself that you should have spent more time with the person before they died. This kind of anger usually results in the grieving person punishing themselves in some way or another. In the most extreme and tragic examples, it can even result in self harm or worse.
Anger at the person who has died is also another common form, especially if the circumstances of the death were unique or particularly tragic. For example, someone who has lost someone to suicide or drunk driving might feel anger towards their loved one for “abandoning” them because of the way in which they died.
Which leaves anger felt towards everyone else. This can range from being angry at surviving family members for not being the one that died, to being angry at friends for not experiencing the same loss as you and continuing to lead a happy life. Remember that grief is not always reasonable or logic and anger is an emotion that comes straight from our emotions, not our logic. Regardless of why a grieving person is angry at others, the most common way in which they will express this is through pushing them away. This can also be linked to other sources of anger. Not only are they punishing the people they are angry with, but pushing away support or affection from others is a method of self preservation in order to avoid feeling the pain of loss again.
Finally, another way in which we can often direct our anger is not at individuals, but at institutions and abstract concepts. For example, a religious person may feel anger towards a god who they feel has deprived them of someone they love. As a result, they might stop going to church throughout the duration of this stage. Throughout any of these examples, anger is usually expressed as a form of rebellion or used to punish oneself or others, but rarely does it take the form of actual violence.
As cliche as it sounds, accepting that anger is a natural part of the grieving process is the first step in being able to move past it. There’s no set time limit on how long any one stage of grief should last, but being stuck with feelings of anger for too long can also begin to impact on your overall well being.
First, it’s important to confess our anger – to accept and recognise it exactly for the emotion it is – and, once we have done that, to express it in appropriate ways. Screaming in the shower, hitting your pillows, or exercise may help, but it will be better to find some friends with whom you can be open and honest about the way you are feeling. Choose friends you trust and who you know well, even though being vulnerable with these feelings can be difficult.
It can be extremely tempting to suppress anger, especially if it’s a form that is not socially acceptable such as anger directed towards the person who has died. Either that, or anger is often repressed in order to spare others in our lives stress or worry. This is not helpful as the anger may erupt in inappropriate ways, hurting both yourself and others. It can also lead to general irritability, short-temperedness and even illness. Not facing up to anger immediately will only help to prolong this stage of grief.
Contrary to popular belief, anger need not always be destructive. Consider the anger felt by activists fighting for the human rights of others and how their rage is manifested in life changing movements. When focused appropriately, anger can actually be a terrific motivator and constructive, rather than destructive.
Activism is just one way in which we can focus our energy when we feel angry. Raising awareness towards a specific illness is another way in which grieving families often find strength after the unfair loss of someone to cancer, for example. They use their anger and pain to fuel charity drives, they make donations and they spread awareness to help prevent other people from suffering the same fate.
Even focusing your energy on something like exercise can end up having a positive impact on your health and is a natural stress relief at the same time. Not only that, but forms of physical activity that help to improve your mental and physical health are unlikely to cause harm to others, which is exactly what we want. If you can find a way for anger to motivate you, then make the most of it.
Trying to Find Closure
Finally, an old fashioned, but tried and true method for hoping to move past something when actual closure is impossible is through writing a letter. Perhaps the letter is addressed to the person that you lost, maybe it’s directed at a religious figure or even to yourself. Just the act of getting such abstract feelings of grief stricken anger down on paper in a logical fashion and seeing it with your own two eyes is already a way to untangle what can seem like an interpretable mess in your own head.
You can write and rewrite the letter as many times as you see fit until all your thoughts and feelings are in front of you. It is then recommended that you read the letter out loud to yourself as though you were speaking to the person you are addressing, even if that person is yourself. As hard as this process is, it is supposed to act as a form of catharsis, a confrontation that may not be able to happen in reality, but is able to happen in theory.
Finally, to symbolise moving on and having made peace with your anger, you should either tear up or burn the letter. It’s likely not the sort of thing you will want to stumble upon years down the line and is supposed to exist as a representation of your feelings in this one specific moment. Once it’s destroyed, the physical gesture may just help you move on mentally as well.
Although anger is normal in the first few weeks and months after bereavement, anger that persists and consumes thoughts, is always destructive. This kind of long-term anger is usually the result of not being able to accept what has happened. This is why acceptance must always be the first step in the road to recovering from grief and being able to rid ourselves of anger.
If you feel as though you are experiencing an unnaturally long period of anger during grief, it’s recommended to speak to a mental health professional who will be able to help you find a way through moving to accepting your loss.
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