Shortly after my wife’s death, I went to the mountains by myself for a week and screamed as loud and often as I wanted to. But now, 3 ½ years later, I no longer feel the intensity of anger I felt then. I soon forget how easy it was to cut myself off from others and to let the anger and depression take over.
Why do we become so angry? The obvious reason is that we have lost the love of our life… literally, she was ripped away from us. As a facilitator of a Men’s Grief Group, I often hear widowers speak openly about the anger which wells up within them and how that anger can take over and interfere with their ability to process their grief.
Anger can warp our social filters, limit our ability to communicate, or put us on edge. I AM NOT SAYING THAT WE SHOULD NOT BE ANGRY! Anger is a normal part of the grieving process, and it is OK, even healthy, to express it. The danger is should it become dominant in our grieving process, it may prevent us from processing other feelings and thoughts important to the grieving process. These feelings can lead to unresolved grief, depression, anxiety, and even aggravated physical issues.
Sometimes we may be mad at ourselves or our spouse for some reason. This can result in regret and anger that leads to an endless cycle of pain and sorrow. We can only move beyond it if we forgive them and ourselves. Other times we may hang onto anger because it gives us some sense of control over our situation, making us feel stronger, or helps us to avoid confronting issues we are not ready to face.
Comments from others may seem insensitive and feed our anger. There are many societal, religious, or other group-think inspired responses that sound reasonable to the uninitiated, but sound terrible when you lose someone. This can include:
• implying that you or your wife somehow deserved this, or
• hinting that you or your wife did not pray enough, or
• saying you don’t have to be sad, just decide to be happy, or
• affirming that everything happens for a reason so everything will be all right in the end, or
• asking a mundane question without thinking, such as, “How are you?” or
• suggesting that your grieving is just a for a short period and you will be stronger for it.
When we are angry, it helps to remember that anger takes time away from being sad, from processing our loss, from recognizing the good part of what we had, and from honoring our wife’s memory. As difficult as it is, it helps to focus on confining our expressions of anger to times when we can just let it out. This may mean going to the mountain or beach by yourself, entering a closet in your home, or screaming into a pillow.
If you don’t release this pent-up anger, frustration, confusion, and anxiety, you risk having it come out at an inopportune time and ruining valued relationships. If you lash out at those close to you, try to explain to them why what they said or did makes you angry. Over time, I learned to forgive others for being “insensitive,” and forgive myself for saying or doing the wrong thing in return.
This means being vulnerable, sharing your grief and even anger with others. By doing this, we let the anger find a productive outlet… one which relieves the stress and anxiety, and one which allows you to leave the anger behind you gradually.
None of us wants to be sad, alone, delusional, lost, or without purpose… And yet, that is often exactly what we need to experience to process our grief. Some of the best advice I received was to “embrace your grief,” because this, in turn, allows you to process it and to heal. As Megan Devine notes in her book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK, “…being human hurts. It hurts because we love… Being a spiritually minded person makes you more open to pain and suffering and hardship – which are all parts of love… The way to get through the pain of being human is not to deny it, but to experience it.” (1)
(1) Megan Devine, It’s OK That You’re Not OK (Boulder: Sounds True, 2017)