Grief is rife with difficult emotions, and for many people, anger and guilt are two of the most difficult. Not everyone experiences anger or guilt in grief, but both are normal reactions to the loss of someone important to us. These “normal” emotions don’t feel at all normal, and often cause great distress and confusion. How can we understand what is happening to us and find ways to cope?
Anger is a powerful messenger. It tells us something is not right in our world. And when someone important to us dies, many things are not right in our world. So it is natural to experience anger when grieving — natural, but not easy. For many of us, anger is a very uncomfortable emotion that we aren’t supposed to have, a “bad feeling” that makes us feel like a “bad person,” causing us to push it away.
But if anger is a messenger, we need to pay attention to what it has to say. A messenger knocking at the door will keep banging harder and harder if ignored — and may even kick the door in! Pushing anger aside works only for a short time; it grows when suppressed. But when we face our anger and attend to what is causing it, we can reduce its power over us.
HOW TO COPE WITH ANGER
Accept the anger as a temporary part of your healing process.
Anger may feel bad, but it is not a “bad feeling”. You are not a “bad person” for feeling anger — even if you are angry with the person who died. Even if you are angry with God.
Allow yourself to feel and release the anger.
Find ways to freely express your anger without harm to self, others, or property. Talk to a trusted friend or journal your thoughts, make art or music, engage in vigorous physical activity, throw a soft toy, find a private place to stomp and wail. My proper Southern grandmother used to go into her garage, shut the door, and yell at God until her anger was spent and she could return to face the challenges of her new life.
Explore what feelings might be underneath your anger.
Ask yourself: “What purpose is my anger serving? If I wasn’t feeling angry, what feeling would arise?” Anger sometimes hides or masks other hard feelings. It might be protective, hiding hurt or sadness that is too painful to feel at the moment. It might a source of energy, the only thing that keeps us going during those times when grief utterly depletes us. Naming what is underneath the anger allows us to shift our attention to what we can heal.
When death occurs, it is nearly impossible to grasp the reality that someone important to us is gone forever. Our struggling brains often go over and over the details leading to the death as a way of trying to understand how this could have happened, like a detective trying to put the pieces of a mystery together. This intensive review is like looking through a magnifying glass (sometimes a microscope!) as we search for clues, highlighting our mistakes and spotlighting those moments when we wish we had done something different. Our human faults and weaknesses are enlarged way out of proportion. We are tormented by “shoulda woulda couldas” and readily blame ourselves even for things we didn’t know at the time or that were out of our control.
Some of this guilt is realistic (we were not our best selves) but much of it is unrealistic (we feel responsible for something not in our control.) Knowing how to name our guilt is the first step in resolving it.
We feel Unrealistic Guilt for not having superpowers — when we somehow imagine that we should have beyond-human power to know or change things. Unrealistic Guilt says: “It’s my fault I couldn’t get him to stop smoking.” “I should have been able to keep her from suffering.” “I should have known it was cancer even though the doctors couldn’t find anything.” Does this voice sound familiar?
We feel Realistic Guilt when we were not our best selves, when we did something we knew was wrong at the time we were doing it. This can happen especially in response to the stresses of caregiving. In my case, I lost patience with my agitated father who had dementia with nightly sundowning, and yelled at him the night before he died. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t stop myself in that fraught moment.
HOW TO COPE WITH GUILT
Acknowledge that your guilt is unrealistic.
It is OK to wish you could have done more, but not OK to blame yourself for something impossible. Free yourself to face and truly heal the underlying emotions causing this guilt.
Ask yourself: What purpose is this serving? Why am I holding on to this?
Unrealistic Guilt keeps our thoughts busy with irrational self-blame, protecting us from experiencing unsettling emotions such as helplessness, fear, loneliness, deep sadness, and sometimes even anger at the person who died.
Unrealistic Guilt can be a way to stay rooted in the time before death changed our world, a way to avoid the painful reality that we must now go on alone.
Unrealistic Guilt helps us believe that we could have prevented the death, which is more tolerable than facing the fact that death is out of our control.
Ask yourself: What were my intentions?
Was your behavior intentional, on purpose, or was your behavior unintentional, a mistake? Perhaps, like me, you really could have been more patient and attentive in your caregiving. But what were your intentions? Did you choose to hurt this person, or were you occasionally overwhelmed in moments of frustration or exhaustion or fear? Remind yourself that all of us (including the person who died) are human and make mistakes.
Do something different going forward. Allow this guilt to help you grow.
We can’t undo the past but we can create a different future. If you were not your best self, what do you wish to do differently in the future? Perhaps you commit to saying “I’m sorry” or “I love you” or Thank you” more often, or to spending more time with family or friends.
Whether your guilt is realistic or unrealistic, it is helpful to look at the whole picture.
Put away the magnifying glass and pick up your panoramic camera! Remind yourself that the actions that are haunting you are part of a much larger picture that contains many loving actions. Ask yourself: What did I do right? Perhaps, like me, you can move from “I yelled at my dying father” to “Most of the time, I was a loving, attentive daughter. Often I was the only one who could make him laugh.”
Anger and guilt are painful, disruptive, and often isolating emotions. A powerful coping tool for resolving these feelings is forgiveness, a word which is frequently misunderstood.
Forgiveness is not the same as acceptance; it is not saying that what happened was OK.
In the words of writer Betsy Blanton: “Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that what happened, happened, and that you are now ready to set down the baggage, the pain and the fear.” Forgiveness is being able to say: “I acknowledge that this happened, but I’m not going to let it continue to hurt me and hold me back. I am not going to let this memory continue to be an open wound.”
Forgiving the other person isn’t about freeing him or her — it is about freeing you.
Forgiveness allows you to free yourself of the burdens you have been carrying from the relationship so that you can focus on living in the present instead of in the past. It allows you to take control by withdrawing your energy from trying to achieve what is impossible (undoing past actions) and focusing it on achieving what is possible here and now.
Forgiving yourself can sometimes be harder than forgiving the other.
Treat yourself as you would a dear friend — with compassion for your human weaknesses and mistakes. Would you say to a beloved friend the kinds of things you are saying to yourself “How could you yell at someone who was so sick?!” Or would you say: “That was such a hard time and you were so exhausted. Of course you lost your patience at times.”
Say “I’m sorry.” It’s not too late.
Have a conversation in your mind or in writing, or speak your apology aloud. Accept the forgiveness you know would be there for you. Breathe it in. Finding forgiveness is a powerful key to finding peace, a powerful medicine for healing. a life-changing gift waiting to be opened.
"Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future."
~Thanks to Laura Bradbury, LCSW of Transitions GriefCare for inspiring insights.