I have been thinking a lot about anger lately. Anger is defined by my on-line dictionary as a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure or hostility. It is also widely recognized as one of the 5 phases of grief. A person’s anger during grief can range from being angry at the person who died to being angry at God and all points in between. On widow blogs, I read of anger expressed at cancer, at our medical system, at death itself. As I watch friends suffering through divorce and it’s aftermath, I hear anger directed at their ex, at lawyers trying to broker an agreement, even at the community that is trying so hard to support both of them. The social media sites were full of anger following this week’s tragedy in Newton, CN. Anger at guns, anger at gun owners, anger towards those with mental illness, and the social systems that failed to support or treat them. Only weeks earlier, folks were angry at the weather, angry at utility workers that could not return service rapidly enough following a super storm, and they were angry at our government’s climate change policies. Of the 5 widely recognized phases of grief, 4 of which take place in that valley that is darker than death, anger is unique in that there is a target and the feeling is strong. Anger scares me. It always has.
I did not grow up in an angry household. I was the middle child with an older brother and a little sister. In childhood tussles, I was always paired with one or the other. I was often the peace maker. Our arguments rarely became physical, and by a certain age, they were both bigger than me. It did not take a degree in child psychology to realize that I’d better learn how to use my words. I don’t recall my parents ever raising their voices against each other. They divorced without a single dish being broken, and without the intervention of a lawyer. There was a slow dissolution of the relationship, an affair, and increasing distance. I was encouraged to love both of my parents, and knew that they both loved me. No target. No visible anger. I did not learn anger in my childhood home.
Jim had a quick fuse. If pushed, he would blast someone with a face-full of righteous indignation, the blastee would back off, and then he let it go. Married couples argue about money, sex, and chores. We were not immune. It took me years to learn how to argue with him. His anger scared me, but he was not an angry man. It confused him that it scared me. I learned to let him express his anger, and then to re-visit whatever the issue was until we could find compromise or common ground. The long-term discussions exhausted him. He wished I could just get angry back and be done with it. I worked on it. I once threw an oven mitt at him. We both ended up laughing. But, for years after that, if I pulled out the oven mitt, he knew he was getting to me, and that he should perhaps tone down his diatribe. When Jim and I ended up in counseling a couple of years before his cancer diagnosis, he required a mental health diagnosis for the insurance to cover the sessions. “Anger Management” was the one we came up with. He enrolled in a mindfulness meditation course at the same time. The counseling was effective, home life was more peaceful, and we emerged as a team and not adversaries. The summer before his brain tumor was found, Jim became very docile. I thought the mindfulness meditation had taken effect. It was frontal lobe dysfunction. I missed his passion. I actually missed his anger.
As I have said in previous blog posts, I don’t really believe in the 5 phases of grief, preferring to frame it in terms of homeorhesis and resilience. Still, I have spent my share of time in this valley that is darker than death and survival mandates that I do what I can to climb out of it. Anger seems to have no place. It would imply hostility and blame, neither of which I feel, or perhaps I just can’t spare the extra energy they would require. Instead, I revisit the issue. I accept that which I cannot change, I work to better that which I can, and I pray for the wisdom to know the difference. I could not cure Jim’s cancer, but I could make sure his final months were full of life and love, and that he will not be forgotten. I cannot fix our current medical system, I have very little effect at the national level, but I did revamp a small piece of our State’s Medicaid policies and procedures to benefit all mobility device users in Idaho. I cannot understand all of what is going on in the heads of the children I work with, but I can treat each child, each day, each situation, with the dignity they deserve as a fellow traveler on this earth. I cannot fix federal policy on climate change, but I can ride my bike instead of driving and consolidate my errands that require a car. I cannot mend a friend’s broken heart, but I can stand by, I can listen, I can make comfort food, I can remind them again and again that they are not alone. I cannot fix the fact that my kids no longer have a dad, there will be no tearful hugs as they stand at graduations or at the alter. But, I can let them know that I am always here for them, and ask them what is important when I know I cannot do it all. I cannot cheat death, none of us can, but I can try to bring light into this world while I am living. Anger has no place. It still scares me. There is no one to blame. I will light candles on the darkest night of the year, and step by step, climb out of the valley.