Anger is an uncomfortable experience for people. It makes us irritable, impatient, and likely to act out impulsively, saying or doing things we later regret. It is, however, a normal part of emotional experience at the end of life. When someone’s dying, it’s common for family and friends to snap at doctors and nurses, to be short with one another, even to rage, along with the person who is dying, at fate, at God, at the unfairness of the universe along with the person who is dying. Anger can burn away one’s anxiety and fear. Anger is a flame; it can inspire and motivate. In Psychology Today, Andre Brandt reminds us that anger is also information. It can help us get our needs met, set appropriate boundaries, and it can even fuel grand achievements.
Amber alerts and Mothers against Drunk Driving are examples of achievements driven by the anger of parents faced with the loss of a child. When we can channel anger properly, it helps us overcome enormous obstacles and persevere through the worst of experiences. It’s important not to dismiss your anger or feel guilty and distressed just because it is uncomfortable for others or for ourselves.
The level of stress and demand you can experience when someone close to you is dying can push you to your limits. You resent the people around you who could be helping, but aren’t. You get blown away by the inappropriate things some people say or do when they encounter dying and bereavement. “Oh, I know someone else who died of that!” “He smoked? Well, no wonder he’s sick.” “You think that’s bad? You should hear what happened to me when I was in the same situation.” How can they be so thoughtless? You feel like smacking them up the side of the head. Your anger is justified, but what can you do about it? First, count to ten. There is wisdom in the old saw “Count to ten,” partly because it allows you to cool off enough to think through the source of that fury and decide what you can do about it. You’ll never think of the right thing if you just put out the first thought that comes into your head. Try saying “I’m having a hard time right now. I need to find a way to get through this without falling apart.” Set strong boundaries with people who manage to make you feel worse. Tell them what you need and expect.
Ask for help when you’re at your wits end. Often, we don’t get the help we need because we don’t know what to say when people offer. Anger can get you there. Instead of seething with resentment, call one of those people who said, “Let me know what I can do. “ Could you possibly pick up the kids on Mondays this month?” “Can you please bring me something for dinner?” “Would you mind stopping at the store for me if I text you a list?” You may be surprised by the willingness of people to do something concrete for you. It makes them feel that they’ve done their bit.
What about the free-floating anger that comes with the realization that life really isn’t fair. You don’t deserve what’s happening to you and to those you love. “Where is this God who answers prayers?” “Why my family?” “Why my friend?” Dying people, as well as their caregivers, experience this kind of anger. They can also be angry with the doctors that can’t do anymore, with the nurses that don’t always come soon enough, even with the caretakers who are trying their best. First, realize this is normal. You are not alone in your outrage. People feel this way all over the world. Second, punch pillow in the bed or a bag at the gym; run like wildfire. Buy some cheap plates at the dollar store and throw them against a concrete wall. Plates (keep a supply) are easier to sweep up than glass. Go somewhere private and scream your brains out. Play angry songs and sing or dance like no one’s watching. Write angry letters and burn them.
Finally, if there’s a bigger cause, join the movement. Get out in the streets about it. Write to the newspaper. Remember that anger can create as well as destroy.