While contemplating that our loved ones have arrived at the end of their earthly journeys, the future beckons us to continue our own. This is not a matter of leaving our memory of them in the past but of carrying their remembrance forward. The path now before us may seem dimly lighted. Unknown frontiers are approached cautiously. Almost as if learning to walk again we may stumble, not over steps or stones but sharp feelings that can cut and bruise.
We can expect to be sad as our sweetest memories return again, and again are tinged with sorrow. We expect loneliness because heartache for the missing ones is unavoidable. We anticipate that some feeling of guilt or remorse may impede us and we worry about the future halting us, temporarily. But we may be surprised to feel anger!
Anger is the most troublesome feeling to cope with now. It is unexpected, unpredictable and unwelcome. It seems out of place at a time like this. We may therefore have difficulty admitting to anger and when we do see it in ourselves we may not know how to deal with it. Anger may be generated by loss of control over circumstances. It surfaces when no one seems to understand what we are going through. Anger may be our very human reaction to the human condition that life is, as the philosopher Hobbes said, nasty, brutish and short. We may even feel angry with ourselves for being angry. Mourning has a way that distorts rage and misdirects wrath.Anger at Ourselves
Given there are valid reasons for people to be angry when death steals a beloved relative or dearest friend, it still feels irrational. The ones we mourn neither sought illness nor willed to leave us. How can we, the living, be angry with the dead for having died? Well, one reason is because abandonment hurts. The feeling of desertion may start with a loved one's diagnosis and grow in intensity as hoped for cures fail and the final remission ends. The last thing you wanted was to be mad at them. They were so vulnerable and needed you so much. Now that they are gone, anger toward them seems pathetically desperate. But it can be real, nevertheless; for now you must make your own way in the world without their love and companionship and that, at times, is infuriatingly hard.
Admitting to yourself that you may be mad precisely at the one you are mourning requires honesty and insight. The anger can begin to resolve when you accept that there is a legitimate reason for why you feel it. To admit that anger might be tripping us up is also the first step to considering how best to proceed into the future. Just as much as you showed compassion to your loved one while he was sick, show it now to yourself; just as he would forgive you for feeling mad at him for leaving. Anger at Others
People we know can also make us angry: family, friends, neighbors and colleagues. Perhaps something they said or did, or failed to say or do, struck you, and still does, as thoughtless or hurtful. Maybe they meant well, but their behavior or words seemed inappropriate and insensitive. At wakes or sitting Shiva and at funerals, people often do not know what to say or how to express themselves. The words can be awkward.
Still other people feel their loss so exclusively that they have trouble understanding that others, too, are grieving. The sadness around death is made more bearable by sharing feelings. When other family members are incapable of expressing themselves, their aloofness can create misunderstanding or resentment for the rest of the family, and anger can simmer. You could have benefited from the support of those who shared your loss.
Other areas for anger are families at loggerheads over the way estates get settled or remain in abeyance, how heirlooms are passed down, what the grave marker will look like or where the ashes will be placed.Anger at "the System"
The health care system itself can be the cause of a lot of anger particularly when someone we love passes away. People may feel that medical science failed their loved one because a cure was not available. Financial considerations may have complicated the delivery of some services. We may be disquieted that certain treatment was not provided as promised. In fact, when you consider all the physicians, nurses, chaplains, nurses' aides, insurers, social workers, administrators, pharmacists and therapists typically involved in the care of one patient over the course of a life-threatening illness, it's amazing if nothing made you angry at some point along the way.
But it is my hope that, whether your loved one was on hospice or followed by palliative care or another medical service, you were not disappointed in the care that was offered. End of life care is our mission. It includes expert pain and symptom management and our promise to be with the people you loved to the very end, assuring that they were neither abandoned nor forgotten. And a big part of our mission is reaching out to you, too, to help resolve some of the things that may be causing anger or distress. Anger at God
Sometimes we are reluctant to admit it, but we can also be angry with God. "When you see how God treats his friends," said Mother Theresa of Calcutta, "it's a wonder he has any." Indeed, God is the object of plenty of anger, anger from believers and doubters alike. Those who believe in God consider all-powerfulness a mark of divinity. In other words, God could have prevented the death, had he wanted to. So why did he not? Those who were hoping for a miraculous cure for their loved one may now feel that their faith has let them down, that their prayers went unanswered, that God is cruel or impotent or both. If we believe in a loving God, we believe that he does not will the sickness or death of anyone. Always creating life, God wills that we live it fully.
Joseph Butler, an 18th century theologian, said, "The world would be different if we had created it." Had you or I created the world we might well have dispensed with death. Unless, of course, death were the way to a place far more beautiful and ideal than any we could ever create. Then we surely would hope that, in a life yet to come, pain and suffering would yield to peace. Peace is what we await from an all-powerful God who would transform the death he now allows.
If your anger is with the Lord, every pastor and rabbi I know is willing to listen. They will not be shocked, surprised or judgmental. Our being angry with God doesn't make God angry with us. It takes a strong faith to storm heaven with the questions that cause us doubt and anger on earth. In time, faith rebounds, made stronger through suffering, more hopeful by questioning, more thankful for what was -- and all that is yet to be.Finding Peace
The way we deal with anger around the death of a loved one has to do with the kind of anger we experience. Anger toward others is often resolved by our being able to discuss what we think is making us angry - and then being ready to let it go. If the person you're angry with is fair-minded and approachable, the chances are pretty good that a conversation may make things better. Perhaps he or she doesn't even know they offended you. Be sure you're ready to forgive - and say so - if an apology is offered. If you don't think talking directly to the person is going to work, remember the friend or the neighbor who said, "Please let me know if there is any way that I can be of help." One of them may be a good listener and able to empathize. Listening is one of the ways that the bereavement staff of the hospice can be helpful.
As you walk the journey that is now ahead of you, may your footing be sure. Some things can be resolved by bringing them out into the open; other issues may need to be explored over time. Know that there are people who will be able to listen and understand. As you are able to let go of hurtful memories of the past, may you remember the one you love by walking toward the future along the path of peace.
This meditation was written by
the Reverend William Purdy, STM, DD
Copyright (c) 2004 All rights reserved.
This publication is made possible by a gift from Roland DeL. Rinsland, Ed. D.