What emotion do you think of when you hear the word “grief?” Did you immediately associate it with sadness or depression? That’s fair, as most people do. What’s not talked about as often is the plethora of other emotions that come with grief – and one of the big ones is anger.
Bowlby wrote about anger as a reaction to loss, and likened this to the protest displayed by children after the loss of a parental figure (especially mother) whether temporary or permanent. He concluded that this was to facilitate reunion. He also noted that a similar pattern plays out in adult relationships as well. When we lose someone- through death, temporary separation, divorce, breakup, etc. --there are “seeking” behaviors and longing that go along with that.
When some well-intentioned person attempts to help someone who has experienced loss and grief, they are often met with hostility and rejection. This happens after the grieving person may have actually sought and asked for help in the first place. Bowlby wrote that this is because what the person is actually seeking is reunion with the lost loved one, and the helper, recognizing this is not possible, may be trying to pull the griever “back to reality” (acceptance) before the griever is ready, and therefore their goals are diametrically opposed. Grief is a reaction to loss, and the anger that comes with it can be extraordinarily intense, and often seen as out of proportion to outsiders.
At the root of anger is pain. Beneath that pain are layers of other emotions. At the core is grief. And grief is literally painful. Panksepp wrote about the PANIC/GRIEF system in the brain having developed from the PAIN system of the brain.
In the past I worked in retail at a jewelry store. A couple came in one day and the man was extremely angry, visibly and audibly. After yelling at one of the other associates and reducing her to tears, it was my turn. (Great!) After talking to the couple awhile, it became apparent that the disproportionate rage was misdirected. The man’s mother was at that time under hospice care, dying. And the expensive jewelry that he’d meticulously planned for a special birthday surprise for his wife failed to meet his expectations. Fortunately, after addressing the jewelry and allowing the man to talk (vent), his anger dissipated and he apologized to everyone for the outburst. Anyone who has ever worked in retail could probably tell (horror) stories of misdirected anger/rage like this.
Often a counseling or coaching client will present as angry, which can range from general irritability to rage. Sometimes it’s more generalized, sometimes there’s a target, often someone/something that the person blames for the loss. Sometimes it’s at themselves for somehow failing to prevent the loss. Sometimes it’s a higher power or medical professional, or the person who was lost. Sometimes they just seem to be angry at everyone and everything or at someone who had nothing to do with anything but is a “safe” target rather than the actual person/things they’re really mad at. This is displaced anger.
An example occurred when I worked as a hospice bereavement counselor. I had a client who seethed with rage, stomping, yelling, intimidating others, like a giant toddler throwing an outsized tantrum. It became clear that he did not allow any other emotions to be expressed, instead they were all channeled through anger. Once he became aware of this, he calmed a bit and eventually recognized that beneath the anger were complex layers of pain, guilt, regret, sadness, and other emotions he considered too vulnerable to express.
Anger is a tricky emotion. We often deal with it in one of two ways: letting it run rampant or denying and squelching it. Both are destructive. Many times, for men, especially, anger is expressed by funneling other emotions (anxiety, guilt, sadness, shame, regret, etc) into anger and rage. It’s seen as the more socially acceptable emotion to display. Anger can feel powerful and give us a sense of confidence and feeling of certainty, which we may crave. It can spur us to action. Anger itself is neither good nor bad. Think of anger like fire: it can heat your food or furnace, or can it burn your house down if uncontrolled.