Walking with AngerBy
When our children are taken away from us too soon (and it’s always too soon), we expect to feel sorrow and pain. What we often don’t expect, though, is to experience a wide range of other lingering emotions that can resurface again and again as we muddle through the long grief process. One of the most surprising emotions for many of us is anger.
Throughout the process of interviewing families for this book, I’ve found that many grieving parents, siblings, and others have been taken aback by their own anger and just how complex it can be. It’s not uncommon to feel a sense of “wrongness,” as if you are somehow a bad person for holding onto anger about your child’s death.
Anger toward a higher power
Of course, one of the most common manifestations is anger toward a higher power. Time and time again, I’ve heard people say, “I’m mad at God.” That can be pretty unsettling because many people believe they have no right to be angry with their creator. That manifestation often also comes with a deep sense of guilt and, in some cases, self-loathing.
It’s also not unusual for a bereaved parent to feel a strong sense of anger toward himself or herself. As parents, we assume the responsibility for our children’s safety and well-being. We are the caretakers, and out children depend on us for protection. When a child dies, we often become angry with ourselves for failing to live up to this responsibility (at least in our own minds).
I’ve spoken with numerous parents whose children were the victims of accidents or even murder. The parents’ self-anger usually stems from feeling that they should have been able to prevent the cause of their children’s deaths, even if there was no possible way to do so. Thoughts like “I should have been paying more attention” and “I shouldn’t have let my child be around that person” give rise to deep self-rage that is difficult to reason away.
Others whose children have succumbed to illness feel a similar sense of anger for “letting their children down.” I fall into this category: When Aria was diagnosed with Alagille’s syndrome, further research indicated that I also have this syndrome (albeit in a milder form). Never mind the fact that no one knew anything about the syndrome when I was a child, so I had no way of knowing. I still carried anger toward myself for passing on this genetic anomaly to Aria… “I should have known.”
Anger toward others
Anger toward others also frequently crops up throughout the grief process. In some cases, the anger is justified and rational – the parent whose child was killed by a drunk driver or through medical negligence has a very real and valid reason for his internal rage. In other cases, it might be more difficult to justify. You might feel angry toward doctors who cared for your child, even if they did everything possible to save her.
Like anger toward a higher power, anger toward others is also often interlaced with guilt, especially when the emotion is hard to rationally justify. “I know the person didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m still mad. What kind of person does that make me?”
How do I get rid of my anger?
The short answer is, you can’t just get rid of it. You can suppress it, sure, but my conversations with grieving families has shown that it always crops back up. You can, however, accept it as part of your personal grieving process. This gives you the permission to feel your rage so that you can eventually work through it. Acceptance of anger can also reduce those feelings of guilt that can make grief more difficult to bear. (By the way, I’m not talking about acting on your anger. Acceptance without physical action saves you the added complications of embarrassment and/or a prison sentence.)
Feeling anger after the death of a child isn’t good or bad. It’s simply an emotion that you have the right and responsibility to acknowledge.