grief week: anger

anger chalkboard

it’s grief week around here, and there are a few things i wanted to mention as we continue through the 5 stages of grief for these 5 days:

1. in life, these stages take months & years and are messy & weird. 5 little blog posts about them can minimize this reality and i wanted to make sure and highlight that.

2. while these 5 stages are widely associated with grief, there are other aspects of grief and loss that don’t fit directly into these categories.

3. like most everything else in life, they are not linear. there can be a progression but real life looks much more like circling back, skipping over and coming-back-around-to, and cycling through these stages in different ways over time.

we started yesterday with the first stage of denial. the second stage is one that i think can be the hardest for those of us who were either taught that anger was a sin in our churches or that it was unacceptable in our families.

anger is a confusing emotion for a lot of us; it can be scary to feel such big mad feelings, wrong somehow.

but anger is a core emotion that’s part of grief.

8+ years ago when i was crawling on the floor after my church drama-trauma, i remember being the maddest i had ever been in my life. i was mad at the church system, i was mad at the people that hurt me, i was mad at God-for-letting-so-much-dysfunction-prevail-in-the-church, i was mad at myself for trusting them and giving myself and family over to something that tossed me aside without even blinking.

a few months into grieving the loss of church-and-faith-as-i-knew-it, a friend asked me “when are you going to stop being so angry? i’m really worried you are just going to become bitter.”  i then proceeded to go completely nuts and yelled, “this is the first time in my entire life i have let myself be angry. ask me this question in a year because i am not going to stuff these feelings down and pretend anymore!”  oh, i was a mess.  and i was exactly where i needed to be at that time.  my typical m.o. was to button everything up, put on a happy face, and make nice when i was hurting.  to let myself really be that pissed off was one of the most healing and important choices i have made in my spiritual journey.

i discovered God could handle it.

i discovered true friends could handle it.

i discovered i could handle it.

there are certain losses and pains that deserve anger. losing people, losing relationships, losing jobs, losing faith, losing dreams, losing hope hurts. 

and when we try to stuff it down, make it all okay, pray-our-way-out-of-it-in-a-snap, in the end we don’t get to the other side.  that’s actually when bitterness slips in.

do i mean that we get to hurt people in our anger or spew all over the place all of the time? no, that’s not a good idea and we have to consider the right places and spaces to express it.

but anger must be acknowledged, felt and embraced as part of grief. 

the Bible does not say “do not ever be angry.” it says “in your anger, do not sin.”

we have to be willing to feel our anger, even though it’s scary. the more we feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more we will heal.

also, there are many other emotions under the anger–fear, rejection, shame, resentment–and over time it is good to identify what’s going on underneath. i had all 4 of those going on in full force–fear, rejection, shame, and resentment.  it helped to recognize them as primary emotions underneath the anger.

if we were all together in my living room or at the refuge, there are all kinds of good things we could do to express some of our anger.  at walking wounded live, we had a plate-throwing station outside with a huge target.  at the end of the day, every single plate was broken.  at some of our grief and church baggage nights we have had paper shredders and nails and wood and chewing gum to express it viscerally.

one simple exercise i did at a faith shift night at a local ministry was just to write down what we were mad about and then tear that paper into little teeny bits.  it’s amazing how good that ripping can feel.

what are you really angry about related to your loss(es)? don’t try to justify anything or add disclaimers on, just get in touch with “i am so angry that..”

  • is it easy or hard for you to express this anger?
  • what are some other emotions underneath it? fear, rejection, shame, resentment, or ?
  • how are you expressing it?

i have no idea if you can find a way to do something physical with it, but if you can, try.  there’s nothing like a big piece of wood and a bunch of nails to bang into it. or a punching bag. or a friend who can sit and listen to you vent and vent and vent and not edit a thing.

if it helps to vent some here, feel free.

tomorrow the fun continues (goodness gracious, what was i thinking on this for a summertime series?) with bargaining.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

13 Comments

  • I have also come to recognize anger as a very powerful emotion and learning to allow it to help me make hard choices that only that powerful of and emotion can set me up to do. Not sinning in it is the caution not, not using it to do the right thing. I always think someone out there is so angry at cancer that they will find a cure.

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    • thanks, robbie, yes, it is a really propelling emotion and can catalyze us toward change. i always love hearing from you!

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  • a) I’m super curious what you did with the paper shredders and chewing gum at the church baggage night!! Just shredded stuff? What about the gum? Chewed it violently? ha!

    b) Anger is something that I think simmers beneath my grief a lot of the time. It seems to be connected to resentment and fear most of the time. I’m sure if I explored it more I’d make other discoveries. I am finding Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark both helpful right now as I sort through it all.

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    • april, for the paper shredder, we just had cardstock and sharpies and people could vent and then shred. it was amazing how awesome it felt to put it in and hear the rip. on the gum, she had a big picture of a fist that she spray painted (my friend jenny is an amazing artist and create-space-person). then, big pieces of chewing gum and yes, violent chewing, ha ha, and then taking the gum and putting it on the picture. wild. i have read part of falling upward (need to finish) and just ordered learning to walk in the dark recently. hope to read it next!

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  • Yup…this is why I love you so much, sister…walked the same path so much of the time! <3 How many of us had never been given permission to feel angry?!? And this is a wonderful time for you to delve into this…and thanks for the reminders at the beginning about not going all simplistic. 😉

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  • I am learning to look under my anger and listen to it teach me about myself. Under my anger is always sadness around something I cannot fully control or understand. I am a 4 with a 5 wing on the enneagram, this makes me extremely interior where I feel things at an intensity that others usually don’t understand. In my unhealthy side I have a hard time balancing my emotions as I am driven by my perception of authenticity. I am very comfortable being honest, vulnerable, insecure, angry, disillusioned or whatever other things I am experiencing. I usually see what is missing in life which makes me struggle more with melancholy, anger, cynicism if I can;t seem to engage the world with what is beautiful and authentic. But this is pushing me to be honest with how really sad I am most of the time and just let it be. I am learning to practice nonviolent communication where I am becoming responsible for my own feelings and becoming aware of my needs while requesting these instead of demanding in anger that someone complies with what I want. Kathy, I appreciate how you state that anger is a common emotion that is part of grief. I think I have been grieving most of my life as an ongoing thing and have struggled with anger, cynicism and giving up on my dreams and the beautiful things God has revealed to me. But God is continually leading me to love the world, the broken, the vulnerable, the poor, the marginalized and embrace the messiness of community. This has been shaping me for some time now.

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    • thanks so much for sharing, mark. i hope some day our paths cross in real life. i’d love to hear more about what you are doing up there and also finally read your book 🙂 meanwhile, i really like what you are saying about anger being a teacher, pointing to better self-understanding and awareness. it can open us up to beauty and hope and change in all kinds of ways if we will let it. one of the things i struggle with in working in hard places with people is how angry i often feel on their behalf–the injustice, the reality, the cycle of abuse, the….. it’s been really helpful for me to be honest about that. peace to you from colorado.

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        • honestly, honesty is the most helpful thing for me. it’s the weirdest thing how much it helps me just to vent verbally; maybe it’s because for so long i wouldn’t allow myself to be honest and say things out loud and always kept them inside. having safe friends and a great partner to just let it rip helps. also for me, sometimes something physical helps me, just going out for a power walk because i can’t run anymore. whenever there’s a plate throwing exercise, i’m always all over it 🙂 what about you?

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  • The anger still flares up when I hit another situation where the outworking of my abusive experience still operates. Like being publicly shunned by those who I had trusted and who betrayed me for a power grab. Or being unable to be there for my oldest son when he is preaching because that means attending the ‘church’ which brutalised me.

    And it’s like I’m abused all over again, and I vent and I cry… and then I slowly crawl out of the pit… again…

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    • oh that is such hard, painful stuff…the betrayal, the abuse, the having-to-go-back-in-sometimes. i am always so sad about the damage done in the name of Jesus. thanks for your honesty here; you are definitely not alone.

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