Responding to Angry Grief

While grief manifests itself in many ways, one of the most challenging ways to respond to the grieving is when people are angry in their grief. Anger in grief is understandable — people may be angry at the injustice of the death, at the people who caused an accident that killed their loved one, and even at the one who has died for leaving them behind. What is surprising to those supporting the grieving is that the anger may be aimed in their direction. It does not take a psychology degree to figure out why. Being angry at an absence is too abstract, so we direct our anger toward something tangible. Usually, the nearest person.

At my work we sometimes are on the end of someone’s anger, usually unjustified, and the temptation is to respond the same way. Over the years, I’ve learned from my coworkers who often explain the anger of someone else as “something must have happened to them today.” In other words, they know the overreaction to something by a trusted colleague is likely reflecting an argument with their spouse in the morning, concern over their children, or something other than what we are hearing. This a patient response, which is not one I excel at so I’m glad I work with people who exemplify that approach.

Father Richard Rohr says “Most people are like electric wires: what comes in is what goes out. Someone calls us a name, and we call them a name back. That is, most people pass on the same energy that is given to them. Now compare an electric wire to those big, grey transformers that you see on utility poles. Dangerous current or voltage comes in, but something happens inside that grey box and what comes out is, in fact, now helpful and productive.”

Most people are like electric wires: what comes in is what goes out.

Father Richard Rohr

This certainly applies to comforting those in grief. If we respond in anger to the anger we receive, we provide no comfort and make no progress. We need to act as Rohr’s transformer and change that dangerous anger into something helpful and productive. This is easier said than done, especially when the anger is persistent and intense. The temptation is to abandon the grieving with an angry wave of the hand, leaving them to stew in their own bitterness. But the angry, grieving person needs even more support if they are to move beyond the anger.

Respond by acknowledging their anger.
Many angry people don’t even realize they are angry until you point it out. They may also not realize they are aiming their anger at you when they are really angry about something else.

Don’t take it personally.
This is difficult since quite often, it is personal. But like my coworkers point out, the person is likely angry about something else, but you are a convenient target.

Pray (or count to 10).
When your patience is running low, breathe deep and say a prayer. The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is something I say throughout the day, especially when I need to center myself quickly.

Take a break.
While there are ways to respond to anger, there is no reason to take continual personal verbal abuse. Walk away if needed and address why you did that later. If the anger may turn physical, leave and seek help immediately.

Acknowledging that anger is a natural response to grief helps those comforting others to be prepared for it. Grief is often portrayed in popular media as just sadness, but there are many ways grief is expressed. The best way to figure out how to respond to someone in grief, is to listen to them.

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