I recently had an interesting online interaction. I’m a member of several grief blog sites and I witnessed two grieving men cussing and calling each other out over a seemingly harmless joke. In the midst of their loss, they lashed out. Maybe they wanted to feel something other than grief, maybe they wanted to punch death in the gut, or maybe they were afraid.
Of all the emotions we have, anger is likely the most studied and the least understood. It simmers just underneath the surface and boils up at the most inopportune moments. It is “The Stranger” known in all of us and feared by many. One thing for certain, where there is smoke there is fire. In this case, anger is not the fire, it is the smoke covering the fear.
Death is the great unknown. Despite having a strong faith, there are the personal aspects of death that are unknown until the moment we are forced to confront them. And thinking about the moment when that person we so deeply love was confronted with death ushers in an even deeper sense of fear. It scares us.
We are forced to admit that control is an illusion. Death strips of our defenses and leaves us once again, naked before God. It is a dark moment as we grasp for something real, something we know we can count on. Something that makes sense when our world has been turned senseless.
Kubler-Ross talked about anger as if it were a stage to work through. She was right about anger, she was wrong that it is a stage. Rather, it is a deep-seated emotion that was with us before they died and now is closer to the surface because so much of our identity has been stripped from us. It will continue after the last clod of dirt is cast or the last grain of ash blows into the wind. But it doesn’t have to turn into hostility, and it won’t always feel this intense.
The next five steps I give you with trepidation. They are somethings that helped me and others, and I hope they will do the same for you. Here are some recommendations to help you get back some of the control you need:
1) Recognize the anger
Anger is a warning sign letting you know you are being threatened. That is a good thing. It releases cortisol and adrenalin to help you fight the threat. Unfortunately, in this case there is nothing physical to fight so the cortisol can linger, causing mostly short-term damage to your ability to think. Eventually, it can leave you fatigued.
2) Lower some expectations
Expect to get angry, expect to be forgetful, tired, and irritable. You don’t have to go to that party, you don’t have to go back to work right away, you don’t even have to be yourself.
3) Find Your Chisel
When my son died, I didn’t want to work out. I tried to work, I tried to concentrate, I couldn’t. What I did was I picked up my hammer and chisel and started carving on some wooden beams and three months later we raised a post and beam shelter. That’s how I started to work out the stress hormones. I won’t lie to you and tell you it was over when it wasn’t. I can’t tell you what your hammer is or how to work it out. You will find your chisel.
4) Don’t set a timeline
So often I said and I hear others say, “It’s been xxx months and I still yyy.” There are no formulas, there are no timelines. Those are just part of that illusion of control.
5) Ask for help
Ask someone close. Ask a “professional.” Ask God. Ask all three if you can. Having someone in your corner helps – A LOT.
If there was one thing that made me angry, it was when someone tried to tell me what to do. You may have felt the same as you reviewed my five suggestions. That’s good. It means you are still fighting to get your identity back. Keep fighting, but even professionals have someone in their corner.
I’ll be sharing more about grief, anger, and fear in the coming weeks and months. Please contact me on my webpage or at [email protected] with any questions about how to put your anger plan into action.
Andy M. Davidson, Psy.D