Letters from Judy: What Do I Do With All This Anger?

“I can’t believe he did this to me. How could he leave me with this much debt? I had no idea things were this bad.” 

Janet was 66 years old and a recent widow when she discovered the second mortgage her deceased husband had taken out on their home. She’d been working part-time at Walmart, which gave her the flexibility to take care of her husband during his final days with cancer. But after she uncovered the mortgage and piles of unexplained credit card debt, Janet realized her job wouldn’t be enough. She was confused, worried, and livid with anger.

Janet was distraught by the anger she felt toward her husband. “I should be grieving for him, not hating him…”

Though Janet’s situation is more extreme than most, many of us feel angry as part of our grief. And many of us are ashamed or afraid of that anger. It can feel like we’re wronging the person we love. But anger is a natural response to loss. Whenever we’re deprived of something we value, our brain is wired to try to find what we’re missing. Even when it’s impossible to recover the loss that precipitates grief, we can’t help our instinct to try. And when we can’t get back what’s been lost, we get frustrated. We get angry.

Anger can be directed in many ways. I’ve seen every shade of anger in my career. Anger toward a lost loved one: why did you leave me?

Anger toward others: how could those doctors miss the early signs?

Anger toward self: why did I not take their pain more seriously?

It might surprise you to know that the most common type of anger I’ve witnessed is anger toward unmet potential and expectations: the mother-daughter relationship that never got closer, the trip pushed off and off until it was too late, the hope for an apology that never came.

Our world doesn’t show us many examples of how to express anger in healthy ways. Instead, we’re supposed to suppress it into something more palatable, something like crying or keeping our heads held high. But that doesn’t make the feelings go away. So what are we supposed to do with all the anger that accompanies grief?

We can start by getting curious about where that anger is coming from. Are you angry at yourself, the faith you once had, or the person who drove recklessly down the highway that night? Your anger might come from a variety of places. In fact, it probably does. But getting specific about where your anger is directed allows you to take the first step in addressing it.

Addressing anger doesn’t mean suppressing it. Anger is an emotion just like any other, and worthy of feeling, expressing, and sharing. Sometimes that means you will snap more quickly at your partner. Sometimes it means you will feel the need to pound on every pillow in your house or shout in your car at the grocery store parking lot. Give yourself grace, and give your loved ones grace, too. They might be feeling a different version of the same anger. As long as you are being safe, physical outlets like going to a boxing class at the gym or kicking paper bags down your hallway are all effective ways to let that anger out.

How has anger been a part of your grief? I’d love to hear your stories about punching bags and moments of rage—they’re the grief stories we often keep to ourselves, but I am here to tell you that they are just as valid as the hours of crying and long days on the couch. As you think about it, consider these questions for reflection about how to identify, address, and make space for anger in your grief.

Reflections for Addressing Anger

  • What ways do you try to suppress or hide your anger?
  • Where is your anger directed? Who or what are you angry with?
  • How do you see anger showing up in your loved ones? How can you give them permission to express it?
  • What are two, safe outlets you can find for your anger?
  • How can you give yourself permission to express anger?

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