This is the third of six blogs dealing with the concept of the "The Stages Of Grief". In this one, we will be discussing anger.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified anger as the second phase of grief that people experience when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness. As has been mentioned in the previous blogs, telling people that they must go through all five “stages of grief”, as part of moving through any loss is both confusing and incorrect. Some people may experience periods of anger, for one reason or another, but is not guaranteed.
I cannot begin to count the number of times, during my more than 40 years in funeral service, when someone has called me and said that they know they must be angry, as part of the stages of grief, but they just cannot do it. They have said things such as, “I know that I have to be angry at Dad to get better, but I loved him and there is no way that I can be angry with him”. By the time they called me, they were frustrated and thought they could not recover if they did not get angry. The misconceptions in the minds of lay people concerning these stages can add additional grief to their lives.
Anger is a common reaction to things that scare you.
This is not to say that some people may not become angry at some point after experiencing a loss.
Most of us have had the experience of seeing a parent running up and down the aisles of a store frantically looking for a child that has wandered away. When those parents find their children, do they calmly tell the child that they should not do this? More often than not, they grab their child’s arm and start yelling at them. Why? It is because they are scared. We hear reports in the media, on a regular basis, of children that have wondered off and been kidnapped by strangers. This is among the greatest fears of any parent. The parents are experiencing a sense of grief over what might have happened. That grief manifests itself in anger at the child for the fear created in the heart of the parent. Anger is the most common response to fear.
Grief is scary!
Dealing with grief can be a scary experience. As was mentioned in a previous blog, the emotions we may experience when grieving any loss can be overwhelming. These are feelings that we cannot control. That loss of control can be scary. Occasionally, that fear is displayed as anger.
There are any number of reasons that a griever might be angry.
Every major change in our lives can result in a person feeling a sense of grief. When someone goes through a divorce, there might be an element of fear about how the future will be different than the one that was originally planned. This fear may be displayed in anger. It is also possible that their former spouse did something that justifiably resulted in them feeling angry!
When a relationship ends, or there is a change in the work place, or with any major change in our lives, we may experience anger. Certainly, if someone we care about dies in an accident or for another needless reason, we may be angry with the situation or whoever caused it. In no way are we saying that anger is not a possible result of a loss.
The problem with labeling anger as a definite stage that must be experienced with any grief producing loss is that it is not guaranteed. There are situations where anger just does not exist for the griever on any level. Does this mean that something is wrong with the griever? No, but if they are convinced that this is a stage through which they must pass, you can see where this could be confusing or even troubling. This is where the layman’s understanding of the stages of grief, and how it is perpetuated, leads to problems.
The myth that people must go through these stages is a part of popular culture.
A few weeks ago, there was a great example of how the misinformation about the stages of grief was reinforced. Felix Unger, on the current incarnation of “The Odd Couple” on CBS, broke up with his girlfriend. That entire episode dealt with him trying to quickly go through the five stages of grief, including his anger. He was convinced that if he went through these stages he would feel better. Understandably, he got used to feeling the pain by the end of the show, but really did not feel better!
A discerning person might have taken this show as proof that forcing one’s self to progress through the “five stages of grief” is not the answer. The problem is that grievers have a reduced sense of concentration and may have missed that point. This was simply a reinforcement, to someone dealing with all of the confusing emotions associated with loss, that there are five steps that must be followed in the same order they were presented on the show.
Whether a griever experiences anger or not has nothing to do with their recovery. There are any number of different emotions that may confront a griever dealing with a life changing event. Anger may or may not be one of them. Each emotional relationship is different, which means that the emotions felt by the griever will be different for each loss experience.
Too often, grievers have well-meaning friends and family tell them what they should or should not be feeling. Telling a griever that, as a part of going through the stages of grief, anger is a stage they must experience, is just another example of people telling them what they must feel. If their professional counselor brings this up, they run the risk of being perceived as just another person telling them what to feel or not feel regarding their emotional pain.
It is better not to focus on just one emotional response, but to offer an action plan.
The best way to assist a griever in dealing with their loss, no matter the situation, is to offer them a plan of action on how to move through the many conflicting feelings which they might be experiencing, rather than focusing on just one, which may or may not have any bearing on their situation. That is the basic design of The Grief Recovery Method.
Here is another post that speaks about anger: Anger Management and Unresolved Grief: The Connection