This is an excerpt from the book: Understanding Anger during Bereavement by Bob Baugher, Carol Hankins & Gary Hankins. You can order it at: www.bobbaugher.com
Targets of Anger during Bereavement
When bereaved, one of the easiest targets for anger is oneself. See if any of the following types of self-directed anger relate to you:
- Not living up to expectations
Part of being human is having expectations of yourself. Translated into self-talk, it often includes the words “should,” “must,” “have to,” and “need to.” During bereavement, it can sound like this: “I must be strong, I must do this right, I shouldn’t feel this way, I need to work harder, or, I have to accomplish this goal.”
Sometimes, the expectation comes from other people, including the person who died. A man in his late-sixties, attending a lecture on loss, raised his hand and shared his experience. When he was a young man, his father died. As the oldest son, he was expected to take over the family responsibilities. It was only then, at this lecture, with tears in his eyes that he clearly realized he had put his grief aside because he was expected to. When asked how long it had been, he replied in surprise, “My God, it’s been 50 years!”
Expectations of others can lead us to put our grief work aside or make us feel guilty or angry with ourselves because we are unable to do so. Ask yourself the following questions: What expectations do I have of myself, or others have of me, that has caused me to be angry at or disappointed in myself?
- Self-punishment for retribution
In addition to being angry at ourselves for not living up to expectations, we also might engage in hurtful self-actions in order to “pay ourselves back” for a perceived misdeed. An example of this would be if you perceived that you might have contributed in some way to someone’s death. Behaviors that people engage in to pay themselves back include: self-hatred, neglect of health, self-punishment, deprivation of pleasure, and risk-taking.
Self-hatred. If you feel any responsibility for your loved one’s death, you may have made some of the following statements to yourself: “I’m a bad person.” “ I hate myself.” “How could I have done that (or failed to do it)?” “Everyone would be better off if I were dead.”
Neglect of health. People who hate themselves may say things such as: “Why do anything for myself? I don’t deserve it.” “Why go to the doctor? If I become (more) ill, so what? I deserve it.” “If I don’t feel like eating, why force it? I’m not worth it.” This may be one of the reasons that bereaved people tend to have more health problems. Sometimes they feel that they do not have a “right” to take care of themselves. As a result of their lack of preventative self-care, they develop health problems.
Self-Punishment. Stemming from self-hatred, self-punishment behaviors include such physical actions on oneself as hitting, slapping, cutting, biting, scratching, and butting one’s head.
Deprivation of pleasure. Self-hatred can also take the form of depriving oneself of engaging in activities that formerly resulted in feelings of pleasure. Examples include depriving oneself of: going out with friends, to a movie, sports event, or dinner; laughing; engaging in sexual relations; participating in recreational activities; or taking a vacation.
Risk-taking. Some people react to a loved one’s death by feeling that life isn’t worth living, and begin to take risks that they wouldn’t ordinarily take. Their self-talk may go something like this: “So what if I die or get hurt–it doesn’t really matter.” Examples of risk-taking are reckless driving; experimenting with addictive drugs; unprotected sex with multiple partners; and trying dangerous activities without guidance (e.g., mountain climbing or hang-gliding).
Life in General
Newly bereaved people often report being ticked off at the world. Other people’s happiness can easily trigger their anger. If they see people having a good time, laughing, their reaction is, “Sure, they can live it up. Their life hasn’t been devastated.” On the other hand, if they see people sad, angry, or lethargic, they feel indignant. They question, “What have they got to be upset about? They don’t know what real problems are!” Bereaved people often describe the world as cold, gray, and lifeless. Some doubt they will ever be able to experience real joy, and some are certain no one can match their degree of sorrow.
The Person Who Died
One of the most common targets of anger among the bereaved is the deceased person. This can be a difficult issue for the bereaved survivor because the target of one’s anger is someone whom they cared for, who cannot defend themselves, and may have had no hand in their own demise. Some of the reasons anger is directed at the deceased include:
When people go out of our lives, we say that they “left.” Some bereaved people report feeling anger that their loved one has left them, even when the death was not purposeful. Death by suicide often greatly intensifies the anger felt by those left behind.
- The pain their death has caused
You may be experiencing some of the most intense emotional pain of your life. Some of the reasons may be: the finality of death–realizing that you will never see your loved one alive again; the manner of the death; other events surrounding the death; the hardships this death has created for you; the hardships it has bestowed on your family; and the loneliness and emptiness you feel.
- Past transgressions
You may still have anger over things that the deceased person said or did to you or to other people. This can be particularly frustrating when the person dies before critical issues are resolved.
- Not trying hard enough to live
Anger can enter into bereavement if you feel your loved one could have “tried harder” to overcome the eventual cause of death. You are vulnerable to anger when you believe the person could have won their battle against death IF she or he really loved you.
- Their negligence
Did the person fail to do something that may have led to their death? This is a blunt question. Answering it may put you more in touch with any of your anger or disappointment. For example, if the person died of a chronic illness or heart attack, you may be angry or disappointed that the person didn’t visit the doctor sooner. Or, if the death was sudden, you may have questioned whether the person could have done anything to prevent it.
- Their behaviors that led to their own death
When death is by suicide, the survivors have a significant challenge in dealing with their anger at the deceased. The intentional taking of one’s own life leaves those who knew this person with unanswered questions, unfinished business, and lives shattered. Any or all of these can be a source of anger at the person who died.
Sometimes the person engaged in high-risk behavior that led to their unintentional death: reckless driving, use of drugs and/or alcohol, unsafe use of firearms, illegal activities, or fighting. Anger may be directed at the deceased person for not acting more responsibly.
- Jealousy of their favored status
“The dead can do no wrong,” is one of the beliefs that make it difficult to feel anger at a deceased person. However, the saintly status into which deceased people are sometimes placed can be cause for some of the survivors–notably siblings whose brother or sister died–to resent the person. If it was a terminal illness, the ill person may have been the focus of the household. The neglect that the survivors felt may have turned to anger against the dying/deceased person. Such feelings may be difficult to admit. If you are experiencing such feelings, remember, they are normal.