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ANGER in the 5 Stages of Grief
All the passages below are taken from the book “On Grief and Grieving” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It was published in 2005.
This stage presents itself in many ways: anger at your loved one that he didn’t take better care of himself or anger that you didn’t take better care of him. Anger does not have to be logical or valid. You may be angry that you didn’t see this coming and when you did, nothing could stop it. You may be angry with the doctors for not being able to save someone so dear to you.
You may be angry that bad things could happen to someone who meant so much to you. You may also be angry that you’re left behind and you should have had more time together. You know intellectually that your loved one didn’t want to die. But emotionally, all you know is that he did die. It was not supposed to happen, or at least not now.
It is important to remember that the anger surfaces once you are feeling safe enough to know you will probably survive whatever comes. At first, the fact that you lived through the loss is surprising to you. Then more feelings hit, and anger is usually at the front of the line as feelings of sadness, panic, hurt, and loneliness also appear, stronger than ever. Loved ones and friends are often taken aback by these feelings, because they surface just as you were beginning to function at a basic level again.
You may also be angry with yourself that you couldn’t stop it from happening. Not that you had the power, but you had the will. The will to save a life is not the power to stop a death. But most of all, you may be angry at this unexpected, undeserved, and unwanted situation in which you find yourself. Someone once shared, “I’m angry that I have to keep living in a world where I can’t find her, call her, or see her. I can’t find the person I loved or needed anywhere. She is not really where her body is now. The heavenly bodies elude me. The all-ness or one-ness of her spiritual existence escapes me. I am lost and full of rage.”
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. We often choose it to avoid the feelings underneath until we are ready to face them. It may feel all-consuming, but as long as it doesn’t consume you for a long period of time, it is part of your emotional management. It is a useful emotion until you’ve moved past the first waves of it. Then you will be ready to go deeper. In the process of grief and grieving you will have many subsequent visits with anger in its many forms.
When Jan’s husband died, all her married friends overwhelmed her with advice on how to get through it. But the women who shared loving tips of guidance had not lost their husbands. Jan would listen politely but think, “What do you know? Your husband is still alive.”
Jan loved her friends and knew they meant well. She said, “The only thing that stops me from letting them ‘really have it’ is that I know they will understand someday too, and I know they will understand hurt better.”
The truth is that anger has no limits. It can extend not only to your friends, the doctors, your family, yourself, and your loved one who died, but also to God. You may ask, “Where is God in this? Where is his love? His powerfulness? His compassion? Is this really God’s will?” You may not want people to talk to you about God’s plan or his mysteries. You may feel like saying, “God, my husband has died. Was this your plan?” Or “I don’t want any mysteries, I just want him back. My faith feels rocked and destroyed.” “I feel not given to but taken from.” “God is a disappointment, and my faith feels shattered with his plan for me and my loved one.”
Maybe you are angry that God didn’t take better care of your loved one. It’s as if you hope that in your case, God will realize some huge mistake has been made and your loved one will be returned to you. There you sit, alone with your anger, wondering how to reconcile your spirituality and your religion with this loss and anger. You may not even be interested in reconciliation. Many don’t dare talk about these feelings. You think, maybe God is mad at me and this is what I get for being mad at him.
Perhaps when our loved one was dying and we already experienced the bargaining stage, we asked God to intervene and save our loved one. Now after the loved one has died, we are left with a God who, in our eyes, did not come to our aid when we needed him the most.
We often assume that if we are good people we will not suffer the ills of the world. You may feel that you and your loved one honored your part of the deal: You went to church, synagogue, or your particular place of worship. You were loving, kind, and charitable. You did all the things you were told. You believed you would be rewarded if you did. Well, this loss is no reward. We also assume that if we care for our bodies, eat right, get medical checkups, and exercise, we will be granted good health. These assumptions come crashing down around us when the good, the just, the loving, the healthy, the young, and even the needed and most wanted die on us.
When Heather’s teenage daughter died at sixteen, Heather was furious at God for allowing her to die so young, with a life so unlived. Heather’s family were deeply involved in the church that had been a strong support during her daughter’s illnesses, but they had difficulty dealing with Heather’s anger. She no longer wanted to hear about the God who answers prayers, since her prayers had not been answered. She felt judged by her friends at church for having so much anger at God.
A friend said to her cautiously, “Be careful not to evoke the wrath of God.”
At that, Heather was even more enraged. “What is he going to do,” she retorted, “take my daughter away? What’s he going to do, take me? That would be fine. I’d rather be with her than be here.”
Her friend knelt down and said tenderly, “Let’s pray for forgiveness.”
At that moment Heather decided to leave behind her church and a number of friends. It was years before she walked back into the church.
If we ask people to move through their anger too fast, we only alienate them. Whenever we ask people to be different than they are, or to feel something different, we are not accepting them as they are and where they are. Nobody likes to be asked to change and not be accepted as they are. We like it even less in the midst of grief.
Today, most churches and clergy understand it is not unusual for people to feel anger toward God. Many churches have started bereavement groups in which priests and ministers encourage expression of all feelings. They allow it and are not put off if you speak of it. Consider talking to your church, temple, or place of worship about it.
People often wonder about their God and his role. One member of the clergy shared that he expects members of the congregation to question their relationship with God after a loss. He said that one of his goals is to help grieving members. He said, “Sometimes we do a wonderful job with rituals immediately after death, but I want my congregation to help those in grief with the day-to-day feelings of loss also. Once you allow yourself to feel and speak out the anger, you may find that your God is strong enough to handle your anger, strong enough to feel compassion and love for you, even in the midst of your anger at him.”
Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger. People often tell us our anger is misplaced, inappropriate, or disproportionate. Some people may feel your anger is harsh or too much. It is their problem if they don’t know how to deal with it. Unfortunately for them, they too will know the anger of loss someday. But for now, your job is to honor your anger by allowing yourself to be angry. Scream if you need to. Find a solitary place and let it out.
Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around, maybe a person who is different now that your loved one has died. Suddenly you have a structure— your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold on to, and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.
We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. Tell a counselor how angry you are. Share it with friends and family. Scream into a pillow. Find ways to get it out without hurting yourself or someone else. Try walking, swimming, gardening— any type of exercise helps you externalize your anger. Do not bottle up anger inside. Instead, explore it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
Anger means you are progressing, that you are allowing all those feelings that were simply too much before to come to the surface. It is important to feel the anger without judging it, without attempting to find meaning in it. It may take many forms: anger at the health-care system, at life, at your loved one for leaving. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss. Unfortunately, however, anger can isolate you from friends and family at the precise time you may need them the most.
You also may experience feelings of guilt, which is anger turned inward on yourself. But you are not to blame. If you could change things, you would, but you can’t. Anger affirms that you can feel, that you did love, and that you have lost.
The more anger you allow, the more feelings you will find underneath. Anger is the most immediate emotion, but as you deal with it, you will find other feelings hidden. Mostly you will find the pain of loss. The power of your anger may overwhelm you because for some it may be in proportion to the amount of lost love that it represents. It may seem that if you go into the pain, you will never come out of it or that the pain will never end. You will come out the other end. The anger will subside, and the feelings of loss will change form again.
Don’t let anyone diminish the importance of feeling your anger fully. And don’t let anyone criticize your anger, not even you.
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