From a slight feeling of irritation to extreme frustration and physical aggression, we’ve all felt anger on some level. And for many, angry feelings are normal in the wake of losing a loved one.
Anger is well-known as one of the often espoused five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While the theory that grief progresses in a series of neat, linear stages has now been discounted, it’s undeniable that anger plays a major role in grief and loss.
There’s no right or wrong way to respond to loss. How we grieve is an individual thing and is often out of our control. People can get angry about lots of different things when they’re grieving. Things that were done or not done. Things that were said or not said. Things that seem unjust. And, sometimes, just because.
For many, being angry is more acceptable than being sad. Sadness comes from being hurt and we just don’t want to hurt anymore. We fear exposing our vulnerability, so we lash out at those around us.
But understanding the connection between anger and grief is beneficial, and will help you on your grief journey.
What is anger?
It’s important to understand that anger is a basic human emotion. It’s a normal reaction when we feel frustrated, blocked, hurt or cheated. Everyone gets angry, at least sometimes.
Anger, like other emotions, has three components.
- Physical. Anger is not just an emotional feeling. It’s also a biological process. At its peak, you may feel a rush of adrenaline, increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and tightening of muscles.
- Cognitive. Anger arises from how we perceive a situation and our experience relates to thoughts that lead us to being angry. It may be that thinking about something that happened or did not happen makes you angry.
- Behavioural. Anger also has a physical expression. From slightly raising your voice to smashing things and everything in between. Some behaviours may be damaging, others less so.
It’s important to remember that it’s OK to feel angry when you’re grieving. But it’s important to have healthy ways to diffuse your anger rather than act inappropriately upon it.
Why we get angry
We all have different tolerance levels and what one person finds infuriating, another may take in their stride. But, whatever the case, anger does indeed serve a purpose when it comes to grief.
- It’s a cover up. Anger can act as a substitute for feelings like fear, guilt, longing, frustration or hopelessness. These feelings have the potential to cause us extreme discomfort, so the chance to cover them up through anger can be a welcome relief.
- It blocks out reality. If we can maintain our anger, we can also hold on to our loved one. We may exhibit anger towards the deceased about something that had no relationship to their death, fastening on to a past action toward which we can direct our hostility.
- It’s a defence mechanism. Anger is a way of trying to assert control – even in situations where we have no control, like the death of someone we love. Grief can plunge us into the darkest of pits and anger can act as a ladder to climb out of that pit. By lashing out in anger, we climb the ladder rung by rung and gain control over our vulnerabilities.
- It fires us up. Anger can be, if only temporarily, a vital energy boost when we are at our lowest point of despair. But anger can equally be draining, leaving us vulnerable to painful underlying feelings.
Dealing positively with anger
Anger during grief can often be misplaced or expressed in puzzling ways to those around us. We might be angry with the person who has died and left us behind. We might be angry with God for taking them from us. We might be angry with the disease that brought about the death.
It may be easier to express anger to someone nearby than to figure out just who or what we’re really angry with. The ones who get the blast of our anger are usually our nearest and dearest – those we don’t want to hurt at all.
So how do we prevent it? Here are some ways you can deal with your anger in a positive way.
- Be patient with yourself. Recognise that you’re not yourself. When normal people go through abnormal events, they tend to act abnormally. In the wake of losing a loved one, you’re coming to terms with a “new normal”.
- Express your anger. Anger is normal, but what you do with it can be constructive or destructive. Lashing out is destructive, but holding it in can be equally destructive. By acknowledging it, you can give yourself time to cool down and work out how to deal with it in a constructive way.
- Try to understand. Seek out what’s driving your anger, resentment or disappointment. Examine whatever expectations you had of others that were not met. By identifying what’s making you angry, you can then plan to make changes to those aspects of your life.
- Communicate. Don’t just vent and yell. Rather, identify why you’re angry and communicate your reasons. Self-awareness and communication helps.
- Calm down constructively. Exercise. Meditate. Listen to music. Dance. Cry your eyes out. Different things work for different people when it comes to defusing anger. Do what works.
- Count to 10. If you’re really angry, count to 100. Sounds way too simple, but it works. Your anger response happens in seconds, so give yourself a chance to process your emotions and calm down.
- Take a breath. Or two, three or four breaths. Breathing deeply will bring you back into the present, control the emotions you’re feeling and help ease your body tension.
- Take a moment. Running away from your problems may not seem like the best course of action. But when you’re angry, you often can’t see straight. It doesn’t hurt to take five.
- Avoid triggers. If there are certain people or places that make you mad without fail, avoid them. It’s not worth the frustration.
- Let go. Letting go of anger doesn’t mean letting go of the one you’ve lost. Just the opposite. Letting go of your anger means that you can see the world more clearly and, in turn, see the person you’re grieving for more clearly.
Address your anger to move forward
Remember, ignoring or avoiding anger doesn’t work and isn’t a good idea. If you’ve tried to control your anger but continue to have trouble, it’s worth seeking support. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. This is a strength, not a weakness.
Contrary to what you may prefer to believe, feeling the pain of loss and surrendering to sadness is preferable to leading a life shaped by anger and ultimately delaying the necessary experience of grief.
Want to know more?
For more information coping with grief, please contact the Walter Carter Funerals team by emailing [email protected].