Grief and Anger and What I’m Doing About It

In my post ‘Is It OK To Be Angry At G-d’, I spoke about misdirected anger at family, friends, and strangers. I was angry at G-d for taking away by beloved son and wondered if I had the right to be angry with Him. It’s been almost two years since Jacob passed away, and at this point in my grief, I’m no longer angry with G-d. He did what he did for a reason known only to Him, and if He were to explain it to me, I probably wouldn’t understand it. 

Unfortunately, anger is still with me. If someone were to ask me ‘Would you consider yourself to be an angry person’, sadly, I’d have to say yes.

Is Anger a Symptom of Grief?

According to psychologists, feelings of anger, impatience, and irritability all go hand in hand with grief. I have all three, but I’m going to lump all these emotions under the generic term of ‘anger’. Although anger may be defined as a stage of grief, for me, it’s not a stage but rather a state of being. 

Why Does Grief Make Me Angry?

I may be angry for a host of reasons so I’ll explore each one individually:

Am I angry because I feel guilt?

In some sense, yes. I wish I could have recognized the signs of my son’s serious condition and dragged him to the emergency room. When I mentioned to my husband that I thought Jacob should see a doctor, he just said ‘Well, he’s an adult.’ This leads to my next question –

Am I angry at my child for abandoning me? 

A little. I wish Jacob would have gone to the doctor when I asked him to. Even if he did, it probably would have turned out the same. His symptoms were weird and what doctor would suspect a twenty-four year old to be at risk of heart failure?

Am I angry at the doctors who treated my son?

As I said, who was to know he had a heart problem, and by the time he got to the emergency room, it was too late. Sadly, my opinion of the medical profession is not very high anyway, but this isn’t the forum to talk about it. 

Am I angry because I feel I could I have been a better parent? 

Certainly. When I watch Jacob’s brother and his wife interact with their child, I think ‘Yeah, I should have done that raising my kids.’ I could have done better. Hindsight is always 20/20. If I knew then what I know now about raising a Jewish child, I would have done things very differently.

Am I angry at others for being happy when I’m not? 

When I see people my son’s age having families, while G-d did not allow my son to remain in the world to bring in so much as one child, it’s painful for me. I don’t wish anything bad on anyone, and I sincerely want everyone to be happy. I just wish things were different.

Now that I know what I’m angry at, I can better deal with the emotion. But what do I do about it?

What Do Psychologists Say About Anger?

Most health professionals say it’s emotionally and physically unhealthy to keep anger pent up inside. Is it ok to release anger? 

I was surfing the web for ideas on releasing anger. What I found wasn’t helpful. One psychology website suggested I roll up the car window and scream. Really? I fail to see how screaming is going to fix my long term anger issue. Anyone witnessing such an activity would probably call 911. A friend of mine who also went through anger issues, non-grief related, told me her doctor said she should throw pots and pans against the wall. Doesn’t seem that method will take away my anger. The only thing I’ll get is broken pots and dented walls. 

Some ‘professionals’ say I should acknowledge my feelings. (Note the quotation marks) Anger is ok, they say. Problem is, my anger is constant. Being angry all the time doesn’t make me feel better. In fact, it makes me feel worse. It’s not a nice feeling.

Short Term Anger Release

Strenuous physical activity helps me feel better. My brain refocuses during a brisk walk in cold weather. I also find that writing down my feelings, as I’m doing now, also helps. What really calms me down is art. When I’m engaged in creating a piece of artwork, my thoughts are all in on that. The anger dissipates. Physical activity, writing, and art are temporary solutions.

Living with anger is not a permanent fix because the anger just comes back. All the therapy in the world isn’t going to take away the causes of my anger.

Anger is an emotion, so unlike an unwanted behavior, it’s harder to get rid of. Since thoughts drive emotions, I need to work on my thoughts. I need a plan that will take away the desire to get angry.

Having a calm soul is key to getting rid of angry feelings. I just have to let go of my worries and let G-d take care of everything. Of course, I have to put in effort to take care of what I need to take care of, but once I do my part, G-d does the rest. It’s simple in theory, but it’s hard because emotions get in the way. Like walking in a circle, I’m back where I started.

I recently listened to a shiur by Rabbi Kalman Worch. Rabbi Worch was teaching from the book Daas Torah by Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz (1873-1936). Rabbi Levovitz gave a series of lectures at the Mir Yeshiva on how to improve one’s character. Although he was speaking to yeshiva students, the advice he gave is important for me as well. He discussed having menuchat ha nefesh, a calm soul. Having a calm soul means that I need to know who I am. I have to know the essence of my soul. What he said was an eye opener for me: I can’t have a calm soul if I change my personality multiple times a day.

What Is My Soul, Who Am I Really?

Rabbi Levovitz is saying that I go through the day being a different person to different people. I act one way with my husband, another way with the kids, another way with the grocery store clerk, another way with my next door neighbor, and so on.

Why can’t I just be me? When G-d sent my soul down to this world at birth, He didn’t send down an angry soul. He sent a pure soul composed of only goodness. Only later, as I grew up and my ego developed, I adapted anger as part of my personality.

Getting Back To Being Me

To get in touch with who I really am, I need to do as our Sages said: ‘…a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt’. What does this mean for me?

My Personal Exodus From Egypt

If I’m having an Exodus, that means I’m escaping from slavery. What am I a slave to? Who’s the master I’m running away from?

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzraim. This word is similar to metzarim which means narrow straights. It can also mean limitations and boundaries. I’m caught up in the net of anger, my ‘narrow straight’. The only way I know how to respond to a difficulty is with anger, my ‘limitation and boundary’. I’m a slave to the emotion of anger. My master is my yetzer hara, my ego, who tells me that I have to respond a certain way to certain things. This is what I’m running away from.

I’ll Just Say No

This was Nancy Reagan’s slogan on drug abuse. It sounds trite, but the concept is an important one. When my ‘anger button’ is pushed, I say to myself ‘I don’t have to get angry over this, I don’t have to feel this way.’ I say this multiple times till the feeling subsides. On several occasions, this method actually worked. I got angry, but the feeling was brief. As our Sages said in Pirkie Avot, Ethics of the Fathers:

‘…easily angered and easily appeased, his gain overcomes his loss…’ (Pirkie Aviot, 5:11)

I’m now more mindful of how I relate to others. I’m trying to behave the same way with my husband as well as with everyone else, with kindness and patience. After all, that’s how G-d relates with me. But sometimes…

It Doesn’t Always Work

Recently, I had a setback implementing my anger strategy. I got upset over something not that big and carried the bad feeling around for awhile. I said to myself, writing this article is a waste of time. I can’t help myself get over anger, how can I help anyone else? I recognized my yetzer hara was rearing its ugly head again. I said, ok so what? I had a setback. I’ll try again. I’ll try not to get discouraged. I think I can do it.

Gosh, now I sound like the Little Engine That Could.

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