Stages of Grief – Anger

“For many, being angry is more acceptable than being sad; Sad comes from hurt and we don’t want to hurt anymore”.

When we lose someone,(or indeed, something – a job, our home, anything we hold dear) our whole world instantly changes.  This brings with it a period of chaos and confusion which we try to bring order to, by looking for answers.

“Why did they have to die?”

“Did we miss signs that something was wrong?”

“Is there an organisation or doctor that did not do their job?”

“This should never have happened!  This is not fair or just.”

Our natural response is to search for an explanation that provides us with something tangible on which we can focus our feelings because that’s easier than processing what our lives are going to look like without our loved one in it.

In some cases there may be a legitimate need for an investigation into malpractice, but it is important not to use the investigation process as a way or preventing you from processing your anger, which is very much a part of the grieving process.

I have lived through two very different grieving processes, one which focused intently on anger and one, in which anger did not even feature. The sudden death of my mother left, not only me, but the medical profession, with many questions due to the age at which she suffered her heart attack. There was also the unanswered question as to whether her death was due to an undetected genetic fault and whether that gene had been passed down to me. The autopsy showed that it was a combination of high blood pressure, smoking and stress, in fact when I spoke to the coroner, he expressed his surprise that my mum was smoking as she had been on blood pressure tablets since 18 years old and was already at a high risk of heart problems because of her health condition.

It was at that point that I distinctly remember the overwhelming feeling of anger directed at my mother. Why would she continue to do things that may result in her dying prematurely? Was I not enough for her to stop doing these things? In contrast to this my father was diagnosed with stomach cancer before the age of 80 and he was given weeks to live, my family and I accepted this easily and set about making sure that the next 6 weeks of my father’s life were comfortable.

Could anger within the grieving process stem from a perceived injustice in the system that we call life, after all “bad things shouldn’t happen to good people?”  The 2 year old boy who died from cancer or the friend who has never smoked a day in her life ends up with terminal lung cancer. All of these examples go against our innate need for life to be fair and when it isn’t anger is a normal response to grief.

Anger is one of the most misunderstood emotions, as a society we are told to “walk away from situations” to avoid getting angry, and in certain situations, this is totally the right response.

It is probably not a good idea to tell your boss exactly what you think of them in the middle of a disagreement, however to apply this philosophy to every situation teaches us to perceive anger as a negative emotion that we should not express.

Three things can happen if we do not learn to acknowledge and express anger appropriately,

  1. Individuals can become stuck in a cycle of grief and look to substances such as drugs, alcohol or medications to help alleviate their anger/pain.
  2. Individuals can become so full of anger that they can overreact and cause injury to themselves or others.
  3. Uncontrolled anger can cause a grieving person to become isolated from those around them as they will often lash out and try to hurt others, which results in withdrawal of support from loved ones.

Anger is just as important as any other emotion – it is your body’s natural reaction to threat, Someone died or you lost something integral to life as you knew it – there is nothing more threatening, so how do we handle anger from grief?

  • Recognise that you’re not yourself at the moment – You have just gone through a life changing event and this comes with intense emotions, questions and thoughts. Be gentle and try not to hold yourself to the high expectations that you may normally have. It is ok to feel angry at your friend who may be discussing a difficult situation they are facing at the moment, with little realisation of how you feel like exploding because at this moment, to you, there are more important things in the world. This does not make you a bad friend. One of the most important pieces of advice I was given when my mum died was don’t make any important decisions in the first 6 months after a loss. For me, this was a life saver because, had I not have taken this advice, I would have moved house (trying to escape painful memories that eventually became a comfort), destroyed all photographs with my mum in them (and I now look at these photos and see memories) and cut all contact with my mum’s relatives ( I can still learn new things about my mum’s lives from her sisters and brothers).
  • Express your anger- Once we become comfortable with feeling angry, we then need to figure out how to constructively express that anger. This is a personal choice, some people like to go to the gym, box, or take up an exercise class. Others take up poetry, journaling, drawing and some put on music and dance around the house. It is finding something that allows you to release these feelings and feel less burdened. If people ask you how you feel, try to be honest rather than just giving the expected response of “you know…as well as can be expected” By opening up and being honest you can potentially start dialogues that can create a society where people start talking honestly about how they are feeling, which decreases the isolation that grieving people can find themselves in,
  • Apologise- In the anger period, it is more likely that we might engage in behaviour that is not “the norm” for us, for example drinking, emotional outbursts, isolating ourselves. This does not make us bad people, we need to recognise that we may not be ourselves for a while. However it is also important to acknowledge that there are consequences to every decision that we make, even while grieving, therefore if we might need to apologise – it is good practice to do this in order to protect and possibly repair relationships with those closest to us.