“That doesn’t seem right – feeling angry at someone who’s died!”
Several years ago I was invited to be a guest on a local talk radio program to discuss resilience and how to deal skillfully with uncomfortable, depleting emotions. I was given the choice to do the program via telephone or in-studio; as I had never done a radio program before I chose the in-studio option.
Halfway through the hour-long program, the female host directed our conversation toward the topic of grief by saying, “So how can people best deal with the sadness of grief?”
My response to this question included making clear that as grief is a personal experience, different for everyone, sadness can be just one of the many emotions felt after the loss of a loved one.
“Anger, anxiety, fear, any and every emotion you can think of can be experienced when grieving,” I said.
My host raised her eyebrows at the word anger saying, “That doesn’t seem right – feeling angry at someone who’s died!”
What ensued was a frustrating exchange in which the host insisted that anger was only an appropriate response to “being disrespected” or “when someone has harmed you”, and my continually reiterating that whatever emotions we experience are neither good or bad, right or wrong, but informative.
To illustrate my point I ended by saying: “After a loved one dies, we might feel angry at God for taking our loved one. Or we might be angry at our loved one for leaving us too soon, before we’re ready - I certainly felt that way at times after my sister died. Or we might be angry at the circumstances regarding the way our loved one died. We might even be angry at ourselves for having done something or not having done something we now regret. The anger we feel can direct us toward what is seeking healing. What we need to look at. What healing work needs to be done.”
The Language of Emotions
Culture, family-led example, and religious and spiritual teachings can influence what we deem acceptable and unacceptable grief emotions; it wasn’t surprising then when in a post-interview conversation, the radio host told me “church and home” had taught her what is and is not acceptable regarding the emotion of anger and she found it “hard to look at it in any other way."
From a perspective of emotional and mental health and well-being, very few of us have been taught what exactly it is that specific emotions are trying to tell us that we need to know. And we have not been taught how to skillfully navigate grief-based emotions we have designated as “bad” or “wrong." Judging such emotions when they arise can cause us to judge ourselves as bad or wrong for feeling what we feel; this can add another layer to our sense of loss, complicating and even delaying or prolonging the grieving process.
Our emotions speak to us; each emotion has its own language or way of letting us know how we are processing our life experiences. To get a better understanding of what certain emotions are trying to tell us that we need to know, let’s look now at some examples of emotions typically experienced in the grieving process.
Grief - A Constellation of Emotions
Grief can be defined as the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we experience when we lose something or someone we love or deeply value. Inherent in this definition is the understanding that grief isn’t encapsulated in just one emotion such as sadness, but can encompass a myriad of thoughts and emotions.
Grief in its many expressions asks that we answer two internal questions as we adjust to an environment in which our loved one is now missing:
What must be mourned?
What must be released completely?
What must be mourned is unique to every griever and grief experience. For example our need to accept the reality of loss might include mourning the loss of companionship, or financial status or unresolved issues of forgiveness, or all of these things.
What must be released completely can include unmet personal preferences and expectations regarding how we think life should be. Additionally grief asks as part of grief processing that we bit-by-bit let go of loss emotions in order to eventually move forward with life.
Fear is often experienced as anxiety and worry. The emotion of fear asks us to contemplate the internal question: What action should be taken?
When we allow fear to inform experience and flow, fear can bring focus to the grieving process, highlighting our best instincts and intuition, and illuminating a path forward. If we try to run from fear we can end up activating and reactivating the physiological reactions of fight, flight or freeze which then can leave us feeling drained and stuck. Therefore it can be beneficial to lean into fear by asking the question: Fear what are you trying to tell me that I need to know?
As I shared with the radio show host, anger is just one of many emotions often experienced during mourning. Forms of anger can include guilt and shame (anger directed at the self), rage, fury, and jealousy and envy.
The emotion of anger asks us to answer the internal questions:
What must be protected?
What must be restored?
What is seeking protection after the death of a loved one is different for every grief and every griever. For example, we might seek to protect our sense of self or identity once provided by our relationship to our loved one (i.e. care-giver, spouse, friend, parent). Or we might seek to protect ourselves against the pain of loss. In the grief-healing process, protection has to be surrendered or reconfigured in order to move forward with life.
What must be restored is usually a question far easier to answer than what must be protected: moving forward in the face of what has been lost connotes restoration – a return to inner balance and engagement in life.
The emotion of sadness helps us to feel our losses, providing release and rejuvenation.
Sadness asks that we release that which no longer serves us well so that rejuvenation – or a return to the flow of life – can occur. What no longer serves us well is very individualized in the process of grief-healing. For example, we may need to release the belief that what has already happened should not have happened; or we might need to release the belief that we should have somehow been better or done more to prevent our loved one’s death – or even that God should not have taken our loved one from us. Bringing focused attention, with awareness and kind intention towards the self to each unmet expectation of self, God or our loved one may be the healing work before us.
Tears are often an expression of sadness, as well as a way of physiologically releasing sadness from the body.
As we adjust to a world without our loved one in it, feelings of longing or yearning may arise. These emotions tell us that we have a strong desire for someone that is no longer with us – that we desire what once was. Navigating the path of grief with longing as a companion can serve to alert us to feelings of loneliness and a need for greater social contact as part of our grief-healing journey. Grief support groups, private grief counseling or reaching out to friends and family can all be ways of skillfully handling the emotions of longing and yearning.
Your Personal Support Team
Treating all of our emotions as if they are part of a personalized support team invested in your well-being can be beneficial when processing grief. Dialoguing with any and all grief emotions by asking the question: What are you trying to tell me that I need to know? can be a way of letting that support team understand that you are grateful for any information given as you work through the complex landscape of grief.
The Language of Emotions by KarlaMcLaren
The Resilient Heart program/ Institute of HeartMath
Transforming Anxiety by Doc Childre and Deborah Rozman
Transforming Anger by Doc Childre and Deborah Rozman
Transforming Depression by doc Childre and Deborah Rozman
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer
A Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein
Good Morning, I Love You by Shauna Shapiro