Grief: A Common Experience with Common Misconceptions (Part 2)

Today, I present Part 2 of a Sunday series of guest posts by a professional counselor and my dear friend from college. If you haven’t, please do yourself a favor, and read Part 1 first.

An Essay by Noble Erickson, MA

Anger

This may be the most misunderstood of the grief states. Many people believe that this stage involves being angry with God, doctors, or other people “responsible” for the death of a loved one. This does happen, and the more unexpected the death the more frequently it occurs. With suicide, people often feel anger towards the individual who took their own life, which is entirely reasonable—but rarely more than briefly acknowledged. It is a deeply painful and uncomfortable thing to be angry with someone who committed suicide. That person has left in a very permanent way; if they had left in a nonpermanent way, part of the way in which we would try to coax them back is by putting aside our anger. Sudden deaths make it even harder for the psyche to fully comprehend the irreversible nature of the loss. Therefore, our unconscious instinct is to repress our anger to make it easier for our loved one to come back to us. While people do feel angry with the one who “abandoned” us, that is not usually the strongest way they experience the grief state.

Anger is a state that crops up most often in small ways, adding fuel to already snapping sparks. Perhaps you’ve always disliked slow drivers, but now you find yourself screaming obscenities at them. Stressors and complexities related to funeral and memorial arrangements are prime places for anger to flare up. What people often do not understand is that the anger is not “out of nowhere for no good reason”—it is often a rational response, except stronger than normal, quicker than normal, and may be more debilitating than normal. It may also linger far longer than normal. My personal experience with Anger as a grief state has been directed at ministers delivering eulogies, because unfortunately I have seen some very bad ones. For my grandpa’s funeral, my grandma elected to use the funeral home minister. This man had never met my grandpa, and said his name wrong during the service—not mispronounced it, actually said the WRONG name. Obviously this was a legitimate cause for anger, but it was some of the most intense anger I have ever felt, and still inspires strong emotion today, almost twenty years later.

Other times, anger is unleashed on the people we are closest to, who we “should” be turning to for comfort. Although confusing and oftentimes resulting in long-lasting hurt, these people take the brunt of our anger because they are “safe,” and unconsciously we know they are the most likely to understand and forgive us. When I was completing my graduate level internship, my other grandfather died. Naturally I asked my mentor for time off to be with extended family and attend the funeral. She readily agreed, and cautioned me to expect fights may break out among family members. I thought she was mistaken: my mother and her siblings had always been close, they had overcome many family stressors in the past with solidarity and love; I had never seen the adults in my family so much as argue over a movie. Lo and behold, not 48 hours later I was breaking up a fight between two of my uncles just before they came to blows—over who inherited a game board. Grief fueled those squabbles until they became rages, and it took years for my family to fully forgive. Anger can surface fast, hot, over small things—and often it will be unconsciously aimed at “safe” people, who we trust.

Finally, Anger can be aimed at nobody at all. It can be distressing and confusing for people to feel such a strong emotion, but have no place for it to focus. When our Dad died, my brother told me he badly wanted a “six-fingered man,” referencing the classic film “The Princess Bride,” where sword master Inigo Montoya completes his twenty-year quest for vengeance against the man who murdered his father. I understood him immediately: it was a horrible, unfair twist of fate that took our father from us prematurely, and there was nobody to blame. It would have been a relief to channel our Anger into something as solid and distracting as a vendetta.

Bargaining

Here again, many people have preconceptions of offering deals to God, begging for life in return for promises of good deeds. Yes, this does happen, and no, this is not the most common way Bargaining emerges as a grief state. Typically, Bargaining arises as a way to make amends in the face of death, to make up for perceived wrongs or to lend meaning to their lives. This is why people often will portions of their estate to specific people where it will have strong meaning: “I will give you this if you will remember me affectionately,” is their unspoken deal. Many leave money to charity as a final act, wanting the remains of their worldly wealth to have positive impact and give purpose to how the spent their lives. Similarly, family and friends may donate to charities in the name of a recently departed loved one. It is also why we may assume responsibilities on that person’s behalf, such as adopting their pet or their plants, or cleaning their home one last time. These acts of service can be some of the most community-building aspects of grief. Where the preconceived ideas of vain pleading seem pathetic, the more common face of Bargaining can be very meaningful.

Stay tuned for next week’s conclusion to this series.

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