Reading that title, you might be thinking that there are approximately a zillion reasons grief makes you angry. And you’d be right - we could make a very, very long list of reasons for anger in grief. Just off the top of my head, some of the very common ones are:
- You're angry at the universe or God, but that anger gets displaced onto those you care. Displacement in grief is very, very common.
- Grief means that your baseline energy is depleted, making it harder to keep your anger, frustration, and annoyance in check. Sometimes it just spills out in moments when, before your loss, you would have been able to contain it.
- Anger in grief is sometimes because people do legitimately harmful and hurtful things. When it happens, you're (understandably) angry about those things.
- The world is unfair and unjust and it is hard to contain your resentment toward those who you don't believe have been on the receiving end of those injustices.
A Specific Type of Anger in Grief
After experiencing a major loss for the first time, many of us look back on how we handled it when friends/family went through something similar in the past. We realize how much we screwed it up or didn't understand. We surveyed ~1500 grievers about this. 98% said that, after their loss, they realized they'd said or done things in the past when friends and family were grieving that they now regret. 98%!
But this doesn't stop most people grieving from feeling incredulous, angry, and hurt when their own friends and family say or do things that don't feel grief-supportive. We often realize these things were smaller than our initial anger reaction would have suggested. Yet we still feel that anger deeply. That's what we want to dig into today.
There is No Single Reason Why Grief Makes You Angry in this Way
But one big reason that we are so reactive toward others when we're grieving is that, as humans, we are deeply relational beings. We are wired for attachment as our primary way of feeling safe and secure in a deeply physiological way. As humans, from birth, we are dependent on our caregivers for survival (for far longer than most other animals). We seek natural attachment and closeness to our caregivers. Advances in neuroscience and physiology have taught us that, beginning as babies and across our lifespan, we engage in this amazing biological function called bio-behavioral synchrony.
If you've never heard of biobehavioral synchrony, get ready to have your mind blown. Biobehavioral synchrony is this incredible phenomenon where our bodies synch up with our attachment figures. It is "the coordination of biological and behavioral processes between attachment partners during social contact" (Bell, 2020). Everything from hormones to heart rate to alpha and gamma rhythms in the brain synch up. It is one of the first ways infants learn to calm themselves. When they are distressed and a caregiver responds to their needs, the baby feels safe and secure. When the caregiver picks up the infant and soothes them, the infant's heartbeat and brainwaves start to match the caregiver's! This helps the baby's body learn to self-regulate.
How well our needs were met as babies by our caregivers impacts how we respond to and feel safe in relationships throughout our lives. (You can learn more about attachment styles here). And that biobehavioral synchrony doesn't end with our caregivers in childhood! We create attachments across our lives and our bodies KEEP synching up. It all comes together to create an attachment system that is core to the way we exist relationally in the world.
Grief and Severed Attachments
Okay, but what does this have to do with grief and anger. Here's the connection: a devastating loss tears away someone we love. We're reminded that our relationship can be severed at any moment - by death or other traumatic events. This dysregulates our entire attachment system and spirals us into a state of stress and crisis. Part of why support systems are so important in grief is that, in a core, biological way, they remind us that we still have a safe, secure base of friends and family.
But when someone in that support system makes a misstep - even one that's relatively small, even when we ourselves have made similar missteps - it strains our already stressed and panicked attachment system.
We're quick to fear that maybe it is a sign other relationships and attachments aren't safe and are going to harm us. Maybe they don't really care about us or understand us. Maybe we are actually isolated and all alone. That is terrifying for anyone and everyone in grief, and especially hard for those who may have struggled before the loss with trusting the reliability and safety of those around them. And when we're scared, anger is one of our common protective emotions.
When We're Hurt, We Just Want to Avoid More Hurt
In grief, we've already been hurt by a devastating loss and we don't want to risk more hurt, so sometimes we become hypervigilant to any sign that another relationship may harm us. We get angry, cut people off, or are less forgiving because we don't want to risk any relationships that might cause us more pain.
But we really do sometimes react in disproportionately angry and critical ways. That's in part because our brains/bodies are coping with one of our deepest biological fears - being rejected, uncared for, alone and abandoned. Suddenly things that, rationally, we know are not directly or intentionally hurtful or harmful can FEEL hurtful and harmful. And what can make us feel especially confused by our own emotions is that sometimes we realize that even if the person had done the opposite thing, we still would have felt angry! Don't get what I mean?
Examples of Disproportionate or Confusing/Conflicting Anger, Shared by the What's Your Grief Community:
- I had friends stop inviting me to go out and I was so angry and hurt by it. When I asked them about it, they said they assumed I wanted some space to grieve and that made me even angrier. What seemed so unfair to me about my reaction is that I know I had done the exact same thing to a friend after her sister died a few years ago. I specifically remember that I didn't invite her to our Memorial Day cookout because I figured she needed some space to grieve. I had to remind myself that I had done the same thing before I experienced grief and they weren't trying to hurt me, just like I hadn't been trying to hurt my friend. But it still felt hurtful. The thing that is funny is that someone else in my support group for young widows was angry that her friends kept inviting her out. She felt like they were being insensitive by inviting her when they knew she was grieving. When she said that in group I could completely understand why she would be feeling that way. It made me wonder, if my friends had kept inviting me to things, would I have also been angry at them? If I'm honest with myself, I think I might have been. Who knows? Grief is so confusing.
- I was angry with my friends for talking about their kids' upcoming prom plans when they know that my daughter died and will never be able to go to prom. Beyond the anger itself, I felt guilty for being angry, as I care about them and their kids. Of course, I want their kids to have a wonderful prom. And I even know I would feel angry if they were trying to shelter me from any conversations about their kids - I think I'd feel left out or like they were treating me as broken if they stopped sharing their joys with me.
- I saw a good friend from church and she complimented me on my appearance. She said I looked really nice and that she loved my hair (I had changed the style). It was a completely harmless comment. In fact, it was actually a nice comment! But at that moment I felt so angry at her. I interpreted it as her suggesting I was no longer grieving. Even typing it out I realize how bizarre that sounds. But I think I subconsciously that I had been worried that if people saw that I had gotten a new haircut and was making a bit more of an effort with my appearance that they would assume I was "moving on". So when she said it, I saw it as proof that didn't understand that I was still grieving.
- My first day back to work [after bereavement leave] I called my brother on the way home to tell him about my day. He was worried I was going back too soon. I gave him a play-by-play of the entire day. It had been ok but there were some tears and I had been angry at some people. In the way that only my brother could he stopped me and said, "wait, let me get this straight. What you're telling me is that you got really mad at one coworker because she DIDN'T acknowledge you'd been on bereavement leave or ask how you're doing and you got really mad at another coworker because she DID ask you about the funeral and asked how you're doing?". Had anyone else pointed this out I probably would have gotten angry at them too! But my brother can make anything into a joke so luckily it just gave me a good laugh. And he wasn't wrong. I had been angry at both of them for opposite reasons. In fact, I couldn't even really figure out what I wanted either of them to say. I think I was just scared about going back to work. Like I learned in a What's Your Grief online course, often anger is covering up another emotion (like fear). I was scared that my coworkers wouldn't be supportive or understand how hard it was going back to work, so I was getting angry at all sorts of things.
Yikes, this type of anger in grief is what I'm dealing with. What do I do?
There is no easy solution, but you can start by noticing when anger in grief comes up for you. Remember, emotions aren't good or bad - they just are. Even tough emotions, like anger. Approach the feeling with curiosity. There is value in recognizing whether anger is coming up because of genuine harm vs fear of being harmed, rejected, or abandoned. If it is the latter, talk with those you love about this. Explain it and ask for some grace and support from them as you navigate it. Also, let them know what you need from them to feel safer and more secure. Not sure how that conversation might go? It might sound something like this:
"Since my brother's death, I've found myself getting really angry with people around me. I think it is, in part, because I am feeling so overwhelmed and hurt. I'm so scared that people won't be able to understand what I am going through. I am worried I'm just going to get hurt more when I open up to people. And I'm worried people will not be able to support me. I am working on it. It will help me if we can talk openly about it if something comes up that makes me angry and scared. There's one thing that came up recently that I was hoping to talk with you about - would that be okay?"
When anger comes up, find the tools to calm and ground yourself that work for you. Learning to express your needs and set boundaries are also hugely helpful tools. And learning how to give people feedback when they say something harmful or hurtful is tough but important in coping with anger in grief.
Relate to this? Have advice or suggestions for others coping with it? Leave a comment!
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
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What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
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