Anger: Grief's Irate Companion
Blame and hostility can be barriers to dealing with feelings of loss
A recently widowed friend told me, with some amazement, about an experience she had when she went to do an errand. Forced to drive at a crawl in heavy traffic, she noticed a group forming around two street people, men who were loudly accusing each other of stealing personal possessions. She watched as the two, both hulking in size, went into a boxer's crouch, put up their fists, and taunted one another.
She told me that she said to herself, "That's it. That's for me." She got out of her car and walked over to where the crowd was gathered. She stepped between the two men and stood there, looking first one and then the other in the eye. Surprised to see a short, unflinching, sixtyish woman in their midst, they dropped their menacing postures. She returned to her car and continued down the street.
"What were you thinking?" I asked, amused by the image of my normally reasonable friend imposing herself into such a potentially explosive situation. "I was thinking that their anger was big enough to match mine," she told me. "It matched the way I felt inside. So I just went and stood there, sort of trying out my anger against theirs, I guess. And mine won."
Though most grieving people do not take such unusual steps, many relate actions stemming from their anger--the mourning father who chopped down a tree, the widow who berated a waiter at the dinner following a memorial, the widower who wrote a condemning letter to a no-show at his wife's funeral.
Often, people whose lives have been largely devoid of anger may find themselves irritable, intolerant, or even raging. The anger we experience as survivors can seem uncontrollable, coming out suddenly at odd times. Or it can accompany us everywhere we go, infusing everything we do.
It may seem that anger has us in its clutches, hangs on to us relentlessly. But the truth is, we hang on to it. Why? Because it provides us with several payoffs.
First, anger covers up or substitutes for any feeling, such as fear, guilt, longing, frustration, or hopelessness, that has the potential for creating extreme discomfort.
Second, by using anger we can try to block out the reality or circumstances of the death. We may exhibit anger toward the deceased about something that had no relationship to the death, fastening on to some past action toward which we can direct our hostility. If we can maintain our anger, we can also hold on to our loved one, if only the part of him or her that we can criticize.