Fred, a psychology student in college, tells this story:
My dad died suddenly in a plane crash in which he was the pilot. I went through the stages of grief you’ve described. But the hardest stage of all for me was anger. When I was a child anger was forbidden, especially anger towards Mom and Dad.
I had a re-occurring dream. I dreamed that dad called me long distance and told me he was going to come home after a while. He told me not to tell anyone he was still alive. The dream was dreadful. I dreamed it five or six times. The last time I dreamed it I remember yelling at dad, “Don’t you think you’ve hurt Mom enough? Why don’t you leave us alone?” With that I hung up the phone. I’ve never had that dream again.
When Fred finally was able to express his anger he moved a step closer to working out his grief. Anger at a dead person is not at all unusual. The survivor may feel deserted and blame the deceased. Repressed anger usually festers; expressed anger usually relieves.
Anger, as a stage of grief-work, is sometimes used as a “distancing mechanism.” This is especially true in working through the loss of a spouse due to separation before divorce. If Sally can keep up a “healthy” anger at Tom she will distance herself from the hurt of his absence. By staying mad she can hold at bay her hurt and the more hurt she feels the madder she gets. A vicious circle begins, accentuates itself, and insures an angry divorce rather than a difficult reconciliation.
This stage of grief is often compounded by a regression into the previous stage, guilt. Feeling anger after a loss is real and natural, but there are strong prohibitions against expressing this anger. Given the proper setting, it is appropriate to let it out.
Three years after Sam died, Marge struggled for more than half an hour before she had the snow chains loosely wrapped around the car’s rear tires. Her fingers were nearly frozen. Sam used to get the chains on tight in less than 5 minutes. “Damn it, Sam,” she yelled silently to herself, “why can’t you help me?” Marge caught herself short. “This isn’t like me . . . it won’t help me at all to get mad at Sam . . . I should be ashamed of myself,” she thought. Because Marge suppresses her anger she will probably get angry at Sam again and again. Feelings suppressed keep cropping up; feelings worked out are resolved. It certainly won’t hurt Sam for Marge to voice her anger, and it may help Marge cope with this stage of her grief.
Elsie, too, has trouble with her anger. Her husband Buck, died of a heart attack while driving home alone in the pickup one night. Elsie still insists, “If only I’d gotten him to fix the steering and adjust the headlights he’d still be alive today.” She’s angry at the pickup, herself, and the town garage. She refuses to believe that Buck died of a heart attack. She needs a safe target on which to vent her anger . . . and the pickup is a safer target than Buck. She’s using anger to use time until she can face her anger at Buck directly. After all, Buck deserted her.
Although resentment at being left alone is an uncomfortable feeling with which to cope, it is part of the price of being human. If you were a rock you wouldn’t feel the pain or anger, but you wouldn’t feel joy and love either.
Being mad “ain’t” being bad . . . it’s being human.
Little four-year-old Jill helped her mother learn a lesson in being human. As mother tried over and over the get a barbecue fire started, Jill stated matter-of-factly, “I hate daddy for dying.”
Jill’s mother cried . . . and it was okay. It was okay to feel deserted . . . and angry . . . and human.