Years ago at a church I attended we did a community art project. Our artist-in-residence offered us this opportunity during the Christian liturgical season of Lent. This project was one focused on expressing feelings, in an unusual, yet very therapeutic way. One evening, 20 or so people assembled in the small chapel, bringing with us pieces made of glass or ceramics which we no longer wanted or could use. Some brought mugs, small pots, or plates. Individually, we were asked to step into a stairwell and draw up a feeling we wished to express such as anger, or sadness, or a torment of any sort. Then, we threw the piece we brought down the stairwell, shattering it into the corner on a large plastic sheet. Quite unusual right? It was a ritual of both solemnity and a little bit of silliness as we engaged in this subversive act of breaking pottery, in a church nonetheless! Our artist collected this pile of shattered glass and pottery and over the course of weeks she assembled a large round mosaic which was displayed next to our altar during Lent. We watched each week as the collective product of our anger and discontent became a beautiful piece of artwork.
No doubt many of these feelings of anger by our congregation were related to grief in some shape. Anger is an interesting emotion to me because of how it is so closely associated or even identified by certain behaviors such as outbursts, yelling, or strong physical reactions. Of course we can look at someone laughing and say “they are happy,” or someone crying and say “they are sad,” but with anger, the actions and feelings are so intertwined, we have trouble separating them. You may see anger as a dysregulation of your emotions, and worry that you are headed down a wrong path. But anger is not necessarily a dysregulation.
Because anger can sometimes cause rise to negative behaviors; people tend to shame themselves just for feeling anger, even when they do not react. In grief, it is shame which stops the natural processing of feelings in its tracks, whether you shame yourself or are shamed by others. As in all feelings in grief; you must resist the urge to shame yourself and to guard yourself against other’s shaming. With the right support you can come to understand that even anger is a completely normal and acceptable emotion.
A puzzling aspect of anger is that it can often come out of “nowhere” and be hard to really pinpoint exactly why it is there. When we do not know from where our feelings come from; we tend to project them onto things external to us. This is understandable, because your mind is just trying to make sense of what it is experiencing. But in order to safely navigate the complex layers of anger, it is so important to set up support systems inside and outside yourself to find a way to use anger to understand yourself better and to work through your grief.
Support systems inside yourself are the tools you acquire throughout your grief journey. They are your personal support system which you can access at anytime and anywhere. The coping tools serve to help you navigate how you feel, to learn about yourself, and to offer kindness and patience with yourself. When thrown into grief, you will learn which tools you already had with you, and which areas where you may need some guidance. An important tool, especially in feelings we tend to shame ourselves for is the tool of “giving yourself permission.” This is when you give yourself permission to do what you need to do for yourself, to take space for yourself, to care for yourself, to fully feel an emotion all the way through, even anger.
Another important tool is asking questions of yourself in a manner like you are your own therapist. Ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?” and “What are my immediate needs? (food, water, rest).” Especially with the complexity of anger it is important to parse the feelings out. And it is very important to make sure your immediate needs are met as well, because anger cannot be processed well if you are in hungry, thirsty, or tired.
Support systems outside of yourself are those people who offer you wisdom and guidance, but also space. Although internal coping tools are very important to develop, never believe you are supposed to do this alone. We need each other to facilitate us expressing and exploring emotions, especially intense ones such as anger. Anger can build up like a pressure inside your body, and anxiety, when your mind cannot figure out exactly why it is so upset. This pressure needs a safe release. What this looks like for you may be very different from another person. Sometimes it is a physical release. Exercising can be helpful to some. I know you probably have someone in your life who “angry cleans.” A physical expression of anger that is not hurtful to another being, yourself or destructive is perfectly acceptable. If you really need to smash or break something, do it, just make sure it is something you have permission to break, and that no-one is harmed or scared in the process. Or, you can release this pressure by talking. Simply talking. It is highly effective, and that is why counseling, and groups are so helpful.
It is not possible for me to fully deconstruct anger as a grief emotion in this blog, but if there is one thing you can takeaway, take this: Anger is normal. If you can trust yourself with sadness, with happiness, or with all other emotions, you can trust yourself with anger as well. Ask yourself questions about your anger, do not shame yourself. Do these things before you act, and take care of your immediate needs first, then you can transform your anger into a new way of understanding what you are feeling and feel a release as you move forward in your grief journey.
Join me for our Touchpoint Virtual Bereavement group on Tuesdays at 2 PM. It generally lasts about one and a half hours. Click the link below for more information on how to join us, everyone is welcome, no registration required.
If you would like to schedule one-on-one support with me via Zoom, please email me at email@example.com