Why Anger Is Essential To Coping With Grief

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The night I’d found out Precious had died, I was alone in a fancy hotel room in Bogotá. Those first few hours of knowing she was no longer alive I’d spent in a transcendental daze. I paced back and forth in that fancy hotel room devoid of any warmth. I called my mother because I didn’t know who else to tell. Didn’t know who else could possibly understand. Who would know what to say in response to me being devastated about their best friend randomly dying at 30 years old?

“Well, you know, everything happens for a reason,” she said.

I paused and delicately changed the subject and then made up an excuse to get off the phone. That was the first time I remember and could identify how it felt to be angry while being held captive to grief—hands tingling like they had fallen asleep, my face blazing and on fire, my chest constricted and heavy. I’d let that instance go and buried it in my psyche. But there are so many other instances that followed in those first few months to make me more enraged.

Several friends ghosted me, not bothering to acknowledge my friend’s death. Not even a blanket “I’m sorry for your loss” uttered to me. To this day, I haven’t heard from them. The abandonment and loud silence angered me. Other friends talked to me in a business-as-usual tone, unloading what I viewed as frivolous details about happenings in their lives. I didn’t have the capacity to entertain it all. The insensitivity angered me.

And there were the friends and people who really tried, who said on the surface things that were kind and should’ve comforted me yet didn’t. The “She’d be proud of you” and “Do something to honor her” and the copious heart emojis or offers of hugs whenever I vented online.

The fact that nothing placated me was my ultimate source of rage—one I returned to time and time again until it dawned on me that perhaps my anger was showing me something bigger than I had originally thought.

Western society and culture tells you how you should grieve. It’s insidious and subtle, but the instructions and latent expectations are there. Grieve quietly and in private. Expect people to feel sorry for you and feel comforted in their sympathy. Know that people will only care up until the funeral or memorial service; then they’ll continue on with their own lives. Be gracious with people’s verbal fumblings, the empty phrases, and the Hallmark cards offered up.

There isn’t room for anything other than sadness. Especially not anger. But those who are bereaved, as I learned, can be really angry. Because I lacked the support and understanding I needed as I grieved and grieved mostly alone, I turned to online resources and message boards. I scrolled through hundreds of topics and messages daily, ritualistically, from people who found themselves in this new grieving club as I now was.

Anger was one of the things I saw talked about the most. Anger and frustration most didn’t feel comfortable feeling, let alone expressing to those around them. I felt vindicated knowing I wasn’t alone but also at a loss for what to do next.

My anger manifested in an abject form of isolation. I pushed a lot of people away. I cut others off. I wasn’t vaguely interested in making any new friends. Most of it felt warranted at the time. Other parts were grief and sadness with nowhere else to go. My rage helped me to feel connected to my friend. If I wasn’t seething about the sucky hand I had been dealt, who was I? And if I did disconnect from it, would it mean disconnecting from Precious and forgetting her? The fear of that kept me locked into being mad and perpetually ruminating on all the ways I had been wronged.

It was stumbling upon a tweet that finally caused something to break and shift. The tweet was from psychotherapist and grief counselor Megan Devine and contained a graphic with words from her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK. They read: