When the initial shock begins to dissipate, and we are faced with the reality of the death, we often feel intense pain and anger. The pain is usually felt physically and manifests in breathing, eating, and sleeping problems; headaches, heart palpitations, tightness in the throat and/or abdominal area (grievers will often say, "I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach"); exhaustion; irritability and impatience; accidents and illness. Physical self-care such as regular exercise and vitamins, and medical and dental checkups are essential at this step.
What is anger? Anger is the expression of a sense of powerlessness and need. We feel unable to create our own energy, so we try to get it from others. And if the other person does not respond, the angry one gets even angrier--feeling even more powerless. Anger uses energy in an attempt to get energy, but if none is forthcoming there is a bigger deficit. So the angry person keeps looking for a source. You hate your boss so you kick the dog. It works, but in negative ways because that energy is never yours. It does not ultimately fulfill the need. Only you can create the energy you need. Real power is generated within yourself by what you do and feel and think and dream and dare. We are generators. We are the creators of our physical energies. We take in and transform the energy to our use. So why not the same with spiritual energy? How many grievers does it take to change a lightbulb? You. Others can do it for you, but you cannot learn or recover from your grief that way and, in fact, it will only make you feel even more powerless in the long run.
Partially because of our anger, many of us feel overwhelming anxiety, and the future appears to contain nothing but a deep, dark, and empty abyss. Stated in terms of energy, even a small change releases energy that is no longer being directed, used, or focused in the old way. The amount of energy released by a death can feel like an uncontrollable tidal wave.
George was unable to sleep through the night, always waking at around 4:00 am. He had always been “the son,” and was anxious about his ability to take care of himself. "I was a boy. Now I'm a man," he would say.
Martha said, “I feel like there’s a hole nothing will ever fill; nothing will ever be the same.” She was unable to focus her energy and was sick for months during the winter following her daughter's death.
"I'm so damn angry!" Anna cried. "I don't want to be around most people because I know I'm not good company. I feel like screaming, crying, breaking things, lashing out at everyone and everything! I feel very destructive, both objects and even myself somewhat! That last part is something that has started to scare me a bit. I've never been one to give much thought of harming myself, but there have been several times in the past couple of weeks that it has become almost a consuming wish for my life to end. I really don't think I could ever actually do it, it's just that I think I wouldn't mind too much if I did die as I would not have to feel this way anymore. It just hurts so bad!"
Anxiety is a symptom of grief. When we are afraid that we cannot handle the experience of feeling the full intensity of the fear, anger and guilt arising from our grief all at once (which none of us can do) we build a protective wall, or dam, between us and what we sense as the threat of psychological annihilation resulting in the inability to function. So we keep our feelings at a distance, and we spend an enormous amount of energy keeping them at bay, and that is what feels like anxiety. In other words, anxiety is what we feel when we attempt to keep potentially overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and guilt under control. On some level we know those feelings are there, and we also know we cannot really control them unless we confront them, but we fear that confronting them would destroy us, so we feel anxious and may even have panic attacks. But when we have adequate support, we can confront those feelings a little at a time until they seem less threatening and more manageable. Then we can let go, the dam can be allowed to crumble, the water rushes over it, and it levels out. When that happens, all the energy we had been expending to keep the dam in place becomes available to us to utilize constructively in our grief process.
It is common, and normal, for grievers at this step to experience a frightening sense of losing their sanity. A question I hear often from grievers is, "Am I crazy?" Since our society offers few models--and even less support--for healthy grieving, most of us require reassurance that the assault of emotions, thoughts, and physical symptoms we are experiencing is "normal." When given that reassurance, we are always relieved and more capable of dealing with our grief process. I have seen several clients who needed no more than that reassurance in order to move forward.
"Am I crazy?" Elizabeth, 24, asked. "It has been nearly 3 months since my grandma passed away. She died of lung cancer, and the last week of her life was spent in the ICU at the hospital. I was there when she took her last breath. I have always been my grandma's girl. She taught me so many things about life, about manners, about my identity. I have talked about it so much, but the pain is not getting any less. My work has suffered and I was finally told last week to ‘get over it' by my boss.
"My grief over losing my grandma has caused me to cling so tightly to my mom. We've always been close, but I feel like if I am not with her 24/7 that I am going to lose my mom, too. I have my own apartment and my own life. However, for the last 2 weeks I have been unable to go home, go to work, go out away from my mom. I am so afraid that I will lose her like I lost my grandma. I feel crazy, because my mom is not ill. I love my job, but I can't be there right now. I am unable to function. I do not want to ‘get over' the loss of my grandma, but I need to in order to get on with my life. Is this normal? Does this get any better? Do these things go together?"
"Why me?" is another question we often ask at this step, as we begin to look externally at our changed world and notice all the people who are not experiencing our loss. We often feel singled out, different, victimized, even cursed or punished. We might feel that a terrible cosmic mistake has been made. "It's not fair!" we claim. Frequently our anger is directed at anyone who has not experienced the same type of loss, and thus is a reminder of what and who is no longer physically available to us.
For many years, Amy could not look at a pregnant woman or an infant without feeling rage and hatred rise within her. She deliberately avoided looking at babies. Every time Amy saw an infant, she would scream internally, "Why is he alive and James is dead? What right does that child have to be walking around in the world when mine is dead?"
Asha's son, age 12, had died accidentally 2 months earlier. She said, " I wonder if I will ever feel normal again. I just feel that I don't belong here anymore. O God, life is so unfair to give me such a beautiful boy just to take him away again. I also feel that I am constantly being judged. Am I being punished?"
Typically, our anger is also directed toward anyone who we perceive as being responsible for our loss; those who, we imagine, could have or should have done something to prevent the loss from occurring--doctors, family members, friends, witnesses in the case of a murder, etc., or transportation officials in the case of a plane, train, or bus accident. Anger might be provoked by insensitive media coverage, or by the seeming betrayal of a God who promised rewards for being good.
Emily, 52, whose 28-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, said, "I just want this life to be over. I am so tired of trying figure out how to live again. For today I have nothing to give and yet of course the world continues on. I am angry that I am here and suffering in a way that no one should ever have to suffer. I truly believe if I were God I could have come up with a better plan!"
Maria was 68 when her husband died from cancer in the hospice program. She came to the support group full of anger. When Maria's husband died, the hospice nurse--who had recently lost her own father at about the same age--was emotionally distraught and unable to stay with the widow. So she left Maria alone with her husband's body, and she had to make arrangements with the hospital to pick it up all by herself. Her anger was directed at hospice, and she spent her time in group blaming everyone who had been involved in her husband's care--which, by her own account, had been flawless up until the moment of his death.
It is important to remember that most people in our culture learn at an early age to focus on others rather than on themselves. Not only is it easier to do, but it is considered more acceptable or noble or polite. We spend so much of our time and energy talking and making judgments about what others do and choose that we would not, that we actually live much of our lives in reaction to those around us rather than in action that flows from our own core needs, values, and strengths. I mention this here because at no time are we needier than when we are grieving, and the intense need we feel for support exacerbates this problem. Feeling victimized by life, we often express anger at those around us who say things we perceive as being stupid or thoughtless or insensitive; and we tend to spend so much energy focusing on others' shortcomings and failures to care for us that we neglect self-care--which makes it harder to move forward. Focusing on others may provide a temporary distraction from feeling our own pain and confusion, but in the long run it drains our energy and prolongs the healing process. We also run the risk of alienating the very people we need for support.
Hannah said, "People want us to forget our children, move on. I will move on and do what I can at my own pace. Darn if I will forget my son. I am tired of the stupid things people say. ‘He is in a better place.' He is not in a better place, he is dead, and he should be with his family here and now. I wouldn't want him in heaven. Why would God take my child from me, that would be cruel. But yet people tell me that. How could I believe in God or anything good if I believed he took my child from me for any reason. I feel such rage and frustration, too, sometimes, and it hurts so bad. How can I feel joy again when all I feel is this terrible loss? People's lack of compassion and empathy are so sickening, too. Even within families there is no insight or understanding."
Grievers also often feel intensely angry with their loved one for leaving them in pain, their world shattered. This can be difficult to admit, but the feeling that the loved one has broken a promise to always be there is frequently part of the response to loss. Plans had been made, dreams for the future discussed; and now it is as though the loved one has reneged without so much as an apology. "How could you do this to me?" is a question we often find ourselves screaming into the emptiness left behind.
Amy reported that on the way home from one of our sessions she expressed anger at her baby for the first time. "I found myself hitting the car seat and screaming, 'I hate you! I hate you!' over and over again."
Looking at this phase from the perspective of energy, I believe that the feeling of anger is less about "Why me?" than about "Why now?" Confronted with a loss we cannot control, we feel powerless. This was not part of our plan; this was not what we had been working toward or expecting. Our loved one was right here--vibrant and breathing and full of life--and now she is gone! It makes no sense. It's crazy. We feel betrayed by life. We blame others in order to feel powerful and certain in the face of chaos. Some may focus on revenge--"an eye for an eye"--in an attempt to externally correct the balance of a world that seems off center. Some are willing to accept others' help, but only when it is on their terms.
Our response to our own anger is critical. In general, women seem to perceive anger as less acceptable than men do, and are more likely to deny or avoid naming it as what they are feeling. They are more likely to say, “I feel annoyed” or “It’s irritating” than “I’m angry.” They are more likely to get stuck in this phase because of their reluctance to confront the anger within themselves. Men have less trouble naming their anger, and they are more likely to get stuck in it because of the temporary sense of control and power it gives them.
Sophie was feeling extremely irritable, short-tempered, and tired. She would express those feelings and then immediately say, "I'm bad. I'm sorry." She knew that her energy was being depleted by focusing on others' needs, but was terrified of changing her behavior and being perceived as "selfish" by her family. She was babysitting her grandchildren and felt guilty about yelling at them but could not say "no" to her daughter. She seemed to feel responsible for everyone else, but at the same time complained that "everyone's pulling at me."
Focusing on our own responses is helpful throughout the grief process, but it is essential at this phase. Many of us find that making our loved one alive in the world through memorials, connecting with others that knew him and sharing stories and memories, continuing projects or activities in which he had been involved, etc., can help to heal our anger because it shifts our focus from death to life.
Questioning or judging our own responses and impulses is counterproductive (e.g. “Did I say the wrong thing?”, “Why did I do that?”, “If I do what my impulses tell me to do will I regret it later?”, “I should have/should not have...”). That type of ruminating wastes energy and can make us feel more powerless and needy. It also distracts us from dealing with our issues. We focus on our responses rather than on the issues themselves, and sometimes that's why we do it. The key to healing is acceptance (e.g. “I did that,” “I want to do this,” “This is what happened.”).
Finally, it is at this point in the process that many of us become aware that we can feel a number of feelings at the same time--love and hate, grief and relief, anger and anguish, sadness and joy. Mixed feelings are part of every stage of the grief process, and those who grieve can become quite intimate with ambivalence.