by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
“Anger is like flowing water; there’s nothing wrong with it as long as you let it flow. Hate is like stagnant water—anger that you denied yourself the freedom to feel. Allow yourself to feel anger, allow your waters to flow… Be human.”
― C. JoyBell C.
If you’re feeling angry after the death of someone loved, the first thing I want to do is assure you that all your emotions are normal. While anger, rage, hate, blame, resentment, bitterness, and envy in grief can be unpleasant and sometimes even scary, they are normal. There’s nothing wrong with you.
Yet unfortunately, there is a social stigma associated with anger. It implies that people who are angry are out of control or emotionally immature. It shames people experiencing anger.
While it’s true that behaviors associated with anger can be out of control and harmful, the anger itself is a natural human emotion. Almost everyone experiences anger at some point. Your anger is often trying to teach you something about the loss as well as about yourself.
The Utility of Anger
Anger exists. Accepting it as a normal human emotion is the first step toward integrating it into your life story.
It’s important to understand that anger is a form of protest. When we don’t like something that’s happened, especially if we think it’s unfair, we naturally get mad. It’s built into our biology. Children are often our best teachers about grief. Think of the toddler whose favorite toy is yanked out of their hands. This toddler wants the toy; when it’s taken, their instinctive reaction is to scream or cry or hit. When someone loved is taken from you or you experience another significant life loss, your instinctive reaction may be much the same.
Relatedly, anger is rooted in the concept of fairness. Whenever we believe that something “should be” a certain way, we often feel angry if it doesn’t turn out that way. Again, our anger is in protest to what we perceive as an injustice. It’s an emotion based on our expectations and understanding of social norms. If a child dies of cancer, for example, we feel that the death is unfair. Young people should not die. We might rage over this injustice. Smoldering anger—also called bitterness—may set in.
But anger is also functional. As a “fight” response to an immediate threat, anger’s evolutionary purpose is to spur us to respond aggressively when we need to, in the here and now, in order to save our life or the lives of those we love. In the modern world, we rarely have to fight for our lives, but still, anger can move us to take necessary action. If we use anger to motivate us toward effective problem solving, for example, we’re putting the evolutionary utility of anger to good use.
What’s more—and this is also really important to understand—in grief, anger is a bit like the numbness and denial we naturally experience right after a loss. In the early days, numbness and denial protect us from the full force of what happened, allowing us to absorb the reality bit by bit. In fact, I often call them the shock absorbers of grief. They help us survive. Thank goodness for shock and denial! Similarly, after a loss our anger often protects us from our more helpless, painful feelings, like fear, guilt, and sadness. In fact, I often call the explosive emotions “survival-oriented protest.”
So we can honor and thank our anger—for a time. Just as we must work to soften our numbness and denial in grief, we must also work to soften our anger, so that we can fully encounter the necessary pain it has done such a good job of guarding us against.
The Dangers of Anger
It’s important to understand that while anger can feel powerful, active, and even good, it’s not meant to be an emotion that your body sustains for a long period of time. Evolutionarily, it’s meant to give you a quick burst of energy. When anger is prolonged, on the other hand, it stresses the body. Studies have shown strong correlations between anger and high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and a weakened immune system. Anger makes people sick, and it even kills them.
Scientists have found that anger is linked to anxiety and depression. Again, anger is a normal human emotion, but feeling angry all the time is not normal. A tendency toward volatile, angry outbursts is also physically, emotionally, and socially damaging.
You may well have already discovered that your anger can be off-putting to others. Because anger is often blameful, aggressive, and even violent, it tends to harm relationships and can traumatize others in its path. It’s hard to be around someone who’s angry all the time. And it’s scary to be around someone who’s volatile, who may explode at the slightest trigger at any moment. In these ways, pronounced anger can throw up significant roadblocks to love and connection.
Spiritual health requires devoting time regularly to searching for and connecting with those things that feel most meaningful to you in your short stay here on earth (and, depending on your beliefs, beyond that). To a large degree, wrestling with anger is about wrestling with the big “whys” of human existence. Why do bad things have to happen? Why are we here? In this way, anger and spirituality may naturally go hand-in-hand. But ongoing, unrelenting anger can also get in the way of spiritual experiences like awe, gratitude, and joy.
What’s Beneath Your Anger?
The more you befriend your anger, the more you’ll learn why it’s such a prominent part of your unique grief experience—and what may lie beneath it.
Think of your anger like a protective sibling or friend. When you’re in a bad situation, your friend may come to your rescue and stand between you and whatever’s threatening you. They may even get aggressive in an attempt to save you from being hurt.
It’s probable that your anger is similarly shielding you. If your anger weren’t there to rage and bluster and protect you, what thoughts and feelings might be hurting you, instead? Feeling this through is part of your journey through anger.
Helplessness in the aftermath of a major loss can be really painful. So instead of acknowledging our thoughts and feelings of helplessness, we might get angry. But as we work through our explosive emotions, we often find that as part of the healing process, we must reconcile ourselves to our lack of control in life.
Relatedly, fear is a common emotion that anger guards against. After a big loss, it’s perfectly natural to feel afraid. Life can be so scary and overwhelming! When we are fearful, anxious, or worry-filled, we feel vulnerable. Fear makes us want to hide or run away. It’s the “freeze” and “flight” parts of the fight, flight, or freeze response to danger. When powerful, action-oriented anger steps aside, we often find the normal fears of grief cowering behind it.
Regret and guilt often underlie anger as well. People in grief commonly experience regret and guilt because of the finality of death and other types of losses. We naturally wonder if we could have done things differently. We agonize over mistakes made and opportunities missed. Yet for all our normal “what ifs” and regrets, it’s too late to make amends or undo past decisions.
Sadness and loss are the other main emotions that anger sometimes protects us from. In fact, I believe sadness to be the most challenging emotion to acknowledge, embrace, and reconcile in grief. Sadness saps all the color and pleasure from our lives. It makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and it can even cause us to question if we want to continue living.
Like helplessness, fear, and guilt, sadness and loss are also vulnerable, passive emotions. And they’re particularly painful. Anger doesn’t want us to feel them, so it often protects us from them. But if we are to reconcile our grief, we must also acknowledge and embrace our sadness. We can’t do that if anger keeps sheltering us from them.
Restoratively Expressing Your Anger
To move toward reconciling your grief, you absolutely need to express your anger. There is no healing without mourning. But as you explore ways to befriend and express your anger, I want you to keep in mind the difference between damaging expression and restorative expression.
Damaging expression harms you or others. It hurts feelings, injures relationships, and/or causes physical harm to some thing or someone. It can cause secondary trauma to others who may not be trained or equipped to make space for and process the traumatic experiences and explosive emotions of others.
Restorative expression of anger, on the other hand, allows you to fully share feelings in ways and places that are safe, nonviolent, and non-traumatizing to others. It restores your sense of equilibrium, at least temporarily, and over time can strengthen relationships and restore inner peace.
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