Anger in Grief

This is an advanced and long post. Grief is not simple, it is as complex as the life we have lost. There are a few links early in the post that new followers might wish to branch off for a warm up before the main course, so that the rest of what I am saying might make more sense to you.

Anger is a common component of grief and anger is the most dangerous and destructive emotion. I commonly refer to anger as a cancer of the human soul that consumes love. Grief wounds the human soul and often cancer finds a place in a wounded soul.

 In my self-developed model of the human soul (see more) I believe that we build metaphysical connections with loved ones that allow us to give and to receive love from each of those that we love. When we are grieving, we are bleeding the life force energy of love (see more) from our soul because of the loss of a loved one, and as our reservoir of love drops anger can come to feed easily.

As we love someone longer and deeper, we establish trust. When we trust, we flow deeper love with less resistance. A special loved one dies and all of the connections we have with them, small and large, deep and shallow will bleed love from our soul towards the memory of them. The process of healing grief can reconnect those broken pathways of love to the permanent memories and monuments that we build in the gardens of our grief (see more), and the loss of love from our own soul eventually comes to a stop.

If we consider that our soul contains only love, and is entirely responsible for our love of daily life, a sudden flow of love away from our soul can trigger panic. The loss of a deeper and more meaningful love, by its depth and breadth, can empty a soul in a very short time causing extreme anxiety and fear that can outwardly present as anger or resentment, or if internalized as numbness.

I experienced that complete emptiness after the death of our son, but at that time I had no capacity to describe or explain it, so what I felt was simply described as numbness. Numb is a common description of how many people feel when grief first sets in. Numb is often a description of the symptom of not knowing how to feel, not understanding what you feel. That’s logical because every grief is so different, a new and uncharted journey without a map. Numb is uncomfortable and unpredictable, and so, we are often made afraid and become angry by being numb.

When we internalize our anger in grief, often we are punishing ourselves for not having done more, for not doing something, for not seeing this coming, for not somehow intervening and stopping the Universe from taking this life that we loved. There’s an irrational sense of failure, of hopelessness, and of personal responsibility that is unreasonable to place on ourselves. These negative emotions can become self destructive and self defeating quickly, and they can form lasting bad habits as well,  because in our sense of failure is a sense that we might actually bear that responsibility and we twist that to we deserve to have our life punish us for the death of a loved one.

Another side effect of grief is that we lose trust in life itself. We question the purpose of the life lost as well as our own life. This is especially challenging for some who seemingly have very well defined purposes that have been derailed by grief. Grief will change how you see your own life, and questioning your own definition of purpose is a healthy and natural part of grief as you heal. But, this questioning of purpose is not wise too early in grief, because your soul is under filled with love and unbalanced to make such significant decisions competently.

The simplest explanation of the pain that we feel in grief is that we have become addicted to the love that we share with each person that we love. People who truly love life will gather love from one or many other people, from many activities and passions. The complex cocktail of love that we build for ourselves is addicting, and that wonderful addiction truly defines us in daily life. When any component of that cocktail of love is removed, we might lose the feeling and love for our life until we find ways to replace or regenerate that part of the blend of love that we live for.

That collection of love that defines our love for life is blended, not compartmentalized. So, when a significant loved one dies and our soul drains some of all of our sources of love, we can lose some or all of what defines us. Through grief, we may become someone quite different from our usual normal, for a time or for a lifetime. These changes can become negative or positive, they can redefine us as we heal, but left unchecked or unhealed they can destroy much of what we are and much of the life we love living.

In the first couple of years after our son died, I could not look myself in the eye in a mirror.  I saw that empty space, the confusion, and the destruction of so much that I had loved about life. I saw my own empty soul and wanted to avoid it. I had lost sight of my own value, a value that I had spent decades building and maintaining. My son was a large part of that value, but in those years any love that flowed into my soul drained through the wounds that his loss had left, wound that I had not healed because I did not understand how to best heal them, or even that I was the one who needed to choose to allow my soul to heal them.

While I was numb, there was very little outward anger. I had internalized it and the cancer of that anger was consuming any love that flowed into my soul. Think of it as an auto-immune reaction of the soul that was addicted to love, now unable to expand and live on the little love remaining.

As the reserves of our collected love flow out and away, we create room for that cancer of anger to come to us. The more full of love our life is, the more we become dependent on a feeling if security that an abundance of love generates in us. In grief, we sense love flowing out of us, and that triggers panic. The deeper the love, the faster that outflow is, the more we feel panic. Panic threatens us and often triggers anger.

Slowly, in spite of the serious injury to my soul, love started to collect again. I could smile, and after a time I could even laugh without guilt. My soul was healing itself. As I explored myself, modeled and explained what I was feeling, I came to understand that I could help myself to heal.  I understood that it was I who was responsible for how I would change through grief, that I could build a solid joyful memory for each of those broken pathways and that that memory would reduce the amount of love flowing out of my soul. Building good memories was my path back to live and loving life. Each fixed memory, each monument to that love built in my soul improved my feelings about life.

The vast majority of anger in grief is tied to the things that we just can’t change. It’s a lot more than simple frustration or resignation; anger is often a violent call to a forced reflection on mortality and the meaning and purpose of our own lives as well as the life of the loved one we have lost.  We are drawn into the vortex of coming to understand that love is meaningful to us, but also that love can be suddenly taken from us by any random event of the chaotic Universe. This loosens and may weaken or break some of our foundations and beliefs, upon which we have built our purpose for life.

In my writings I speak of the three choices we have as Ignore, Change, or Accept (insert link). We can’t safely ignore the reality of the death of a loved one, and we have no capability to change death, so any death brings us to a forced acceptance of that death and the changes it will bring to our lives. It is human nature to fight or resist forced change, especially those changes that we see as negatively impacting our lives.

The question we must inevitably ask ourselves is: How much of our life, a life that we loved,  are we willing to, or expected to sacrifice in memory of this death? The simplest answer I have found is that the person you are grieving would be ashamed and disappointed if their death caused any damage to your life (see more). They would not want that responsibility for any part of the ruin that you allow to be inflicted on yourself by their death.

With this perspective, it becomes your responsibility to heal and to minimize the damage to your soul and to your life. This is the foundation of what I mean when I distill grief to:

  • We grieve because we love.
  • No love, no grief
  • Deep love, deep and complicated grief.
  • When we love someone, we accept that one of us may die before the other.
  • The person we loved has died; our love for them hasn’t died.
  • Grief is the final responsibility for having loved someone.
  • Grief is love, now expressed by one.
  • If we build a comfortable grief, we can more easily carry that love through the rest of our life.
  • Comfortable Memories and Monuments to heal, to remember, to teach, to inspire, to enrich the rest of your life.

If you made it here to the end of this post, thank you for reading my words. I hope it might give you some healthy food for your soul.

Be well, seek peace, extinguish anger, and learn to love life more each and every day.

Hasty Grief?

In my years of talking and writing about grief, the most common question people want answered is “How do I get through grief quickly?”

This is a continuum of the general concept that grief is an affliction, an evil thing that must somehow be eliminated from your life as quickly as possible. The pain of early grief is very real, with the emotional pain often bringing physical pain and changes in your life that are uncomfortable. No rational human would want to stay in that pain, so the first instinct is to find the fastest way out.

The early emotional pain is an evolved process of humans. It has evolved to teach us more about the one we loved and about how and why we love. The pain and confusion reflects our lack of understanding and preparation for grief, which in a good life is truly unavoidable. Because it arrives with pain, we often can’t see past grief’s pain find to the underlying purpose of grief, which is to teach us and enrich us.

My experience with grief has taught me that what we need to find is not a way out, but rather the fastest way to resolve the pain of grief, so that we can find a comfortable way to incorporate the memories and lessons of the love we have shared into our daily lives. If we can make sense of and soothe the pain, then we can linger in the warming afterglow of that love we have shared for a lifetime.

Back to my basic simple distillation of grief:

  • We grieve because we love
  • No love, no grief. Deep love, deep and complex grief.
  • When we love someone, whether we speak the words of not, we understand and accept that one of us will die before the other.
  • The person died, the love we shared with them doesn’t die.
  • Grief is the final responsibility for having loved someone.
  • Our grief is our story of the value of a life changing love, now carried and expressed by one of the two who have loved.

This distillation of grief puts grief into a perspective of being a fortunate honorable endeavor, rather than being an affliction or injury. Fortunate, because you are the lucky one who survives to remember and tell the story.

Where do you begin?

I suggest that you start by writing a private eulogy in your journal (more here), because that process quickly isolates what you initially see as the main value and impacts of the life you have shared love with. I dare say that this eulogy will expand and deepen with time, so feel free to update or re-write it as you slowly become more aware of the depth and breadth of the influence of that love shared.

I have written many more eulogies than I have delivered. I often write a quick one before a funeral or memorial gathering because it helps me organize and focus on the true value of that life and makes conversations at those events less awkward and more comfortable.

I have delivered eulogies for the major deaths in my life, my brother’s suicide at age 43, the untimely death of a best friend and key employee, and for our son’s death at age 20 in a firefighter training accident.

Whether you deliver it or not, the process of eulogy organizes your early path through grief. It is important to understand that you can use the concept of eulogy at any point in your grief, even years later, and especially when you are finding grief confusing or distracting.

People who grieve well have learned to focus on what’s important, on what they want to remember about this person, about the lessons from this person’s life that others will find valuable.

What is this person love about their life? What did the love doing that you shared with them? What did they teach you? What will you never forget?

We can’t undo death. We are at our best when we don’t allow death to undo the love that we have shared, or the life that we have, and by doing that we deny death the ability to change our lives in negative ways.

But, we can’t honor a life after a death if we run too quickly through grief without fully understanding how this life we shared love with has enriched us and making that enrichment a part of every day we have in the rest of our life.

You will find less pain if you seek the true purpose of grief as a comfortable and permanent enrichment of your life and lessons for the lives of those around you. More good memories, good teachings and less or no pain is a way to define the best possible grief.

Gardens for grief

It begins with your attitude.

If we treat grief as an affliction that needs to be cured, then naturally we will try to hurry thru grief as quickly as possible. If you believe in the process as stages of grief, we will try to do them each quickly, so we can say that we’ve been there and done that. More importantly when you are confronted with a recurrent emotion, you will perhaps resent the return of that thought you believed that you had dealt with.

On the other hand, I believe that grief is a highly evolved process that informs and teaches us about love. It is a purposely lifelong process of gathering and cataloging the positive feelings of love that you have shared. Grief as a teacher can make you more aware of all of the types and versions of love that you share in daily life, and grief can make you better at loving those people who surround you.

The initial shock and unbalancing of emotions that quickly follows a death can cause people to hit the road towards acceptance and run through the process too quickly. Grief becomes a hurried 20 cities in 14 day unguided tour through a strange place you never really wanted to go to. Your hurried schedule is fixed, you have only so many hours to explore and absorb each place you go to before you must get back on the bus and head to the next place. At the end of two weeks, you can’t remember much about any of the places you have visited, you barely know which city you’re in, and you are exhausted rather than enlightened.

The model that I have adopted for grief is different. I have built a peaceful garden like emotional place in my daily life for each of the loved ones that I have lost, not just lost thru death but also lost thru disconnection. Loss thru disconnection, if unresolved to peace, can be more traumatic and damaging to our daily life than loss thru death.

I’m an older geek, so I have built an emotional ability on the model of a Star Trek transporter that disassembles a living breathing person and re-assembles then somewhere else. I can “beam” myself completely between each of these quiet peaceful places of the collection of memories and lessons I have built in life. When life calls, I can “beam” myself right back into daily life, with all of its noise and responsibility.

The word peaceful is operative here. If the emotional place you build in memory of a love lost is not peaceful, then you will avoid visiting it because it isn’t comfortable. These places are full of the most valuable parts of your life, so not visiting them comfortably would become tragic over a lifetime.

It is imperative that you extinguish any anger that accidentally comes into these places of memories. Anger causes fires that destroy the memories that you most want to hold onto.

Simplified, my process is to resolve anger that I find in grief within my daily life. When I find resonance, peace, and happiness in a memory of someone I loved, I take that memory to the safe peaceful place I am building. That process isolates and protects the memories I wish to keep alive from the fires of any remaining anger.

My emotional transporter is programmed to sense danger and to not allow me to visit these places when I have active anger. This keeps the responsibility for extinguishing anger front and center in my daily life.

More on anger in another post, but well managed anger is a natural and often healthy part of grief. In some grief, for me it’s often my brother’s suicide, recurring flares of anger are normal events that may never be resolved to my complete peaceful satisfaction. I believe those flares are self-protective warnings, sparked by some fear of ever finding myself in the emotional sate he was when he killed himself.

Keeping the unresolved anger in daily life keeps that anger from becoming an emotional wildfire. When I seek peace from the anger, I must cleanse myself of it before I visit my gardens of memories of lost loved ones.

When I began this process of creating emotional spaces, I thought first as a library with rooms for each person I have loved. But libraries are passive places that require no effort or input. So I came to the peaceful garden concept, because one must visit, tend to and nurture a garden to derive real benefit and satisfaction from it. Gardens will suffer weeds, drought, flood and untended unused gardens die. These emotional gardens I have built need me to visit, to bring new memories, to trim and adjust old memories. These gardens live and breathe, keeping the past alive with my help, in the same way those I have lost once lived and breathed.

No hurry, but In your grief, build a safe and accessible emotional garden for those memories that you wish to keep alive. Keep it free of anger and of the noise and responsibility of daily life. Bring it newly discovered memories when you transport yourself there, and bring some flowers back every time you visit it.

18 years

It’s June 6, 2023, today we pass the 18th anniversary of the death of our perfect 20 year old son James.

James was home from a brilliant first year at University on a prestigious full tuition and fees scholarship that he had been awarded. He was newly in love with a beautiful young woman that was such a good fit that I can imagine that they might well have married. He had his dream summer job, managing the bar at the yacht club he grew up at two blocks from our home. He had worked and trained as a volunteer firefighter since he had turned 18, and the Fire Hall was two blocks from home and two blocks from the yacht club, so he signed up again for the summer to help a community he loved.

James died in a firefighter water rescue training accident in Hudson, Quebec. Ironically, he was ejected from and run over by the rescue boat that he has helped raise the money for our small waterfront town to purchase. The official report on this death clearly defines the accident as avoidable.

In the sleepless night following his death, I immediately saw that if I presented as angry, I could potentially destroy more lives than the one we had just lost. Anger from me could subject those who were there, those in the decision chains and those who held the wheel to my anger that would attract the collective anger of a town. I had that power. I decided that it would be unfair and unproductive to wield it in anger.

The official report a year later focused on weak chain of command, lack of professional training and inadequate safety equipment. The young man driving the boat made a bad decision, in large part because he lacked enough specific training to not make that terrible decision. It was his mistake, but it also rested on the shoulders of a fire department and a municipality.

Immediately before the accident, James had swapped places with another firefighter who was uncomfortable with the high speed maneuvers being demonstrated. Had he not compassionately traded places, another family would have likely lost their son and ours would have remained more whole.

The politics of elected officials hiding from accepting responsibility made it worse for everyone. The nerves and emotions of a small close knit town were stretched past the breaking point, because James was correctly seen as an example. People who knew James saw and felt his great promise for the future and also knew he was a firefighter. And some even became angry at me for not being angrier than I presented as.

Small town closeness brings unique outpourings of support for grief. Our house filled with people offering sympathy and food. The town filled with satellite equipped news trucks and a phalanx of reporters gathered at the end of our driveway. We became the top sad news story for a very long week.

The mechanics and expectations of a Line of Duty death are complicated, often inconvenient, and anything but small and personal. The emotional and spiritual challenges surrounding the processing of grief for an “honourable death” linger for a lifetime, but all of that pales in comparison to the real challenge of losing a child under the magnifying glass of media and public attention. The media sought anger, and in that I am proud to say that I disappointed them.

I am immensely proud of our family and James’ friend for the ways we have rebuilt our love for each other and for life over the past 18 years, for the impossible work we have each done to repair our individual souls and our collective family soul.

We often express the journey of grief as being a climb out of a deep dark place we have been thrown into by a loss of a loved one. My perspective is different with time to better understand grief.

We were not tossed into a canyon of darkness, we remained in place, but it became a place darkened by the sudden draining of the love we all carried and shared with James. Slowly, as we each healed this tremendous loss, as we each managed and grew around the perpetual pain of the loss of a son, a brother, as grandson, or a friend we each found some thread of new light in our love for James, a light that we could climb towards. 

Paths through grief are individual; it is not a team sport. Yet, literally hundreds of us each followed very different parts of that light that was guided by our love for James. With each passing year, we look around and ponder James’ life and his death from a position on a slightly higher plane or plateau than we once were. We are gathered on a high ground, a plateau build on the shared collective love of a special person. We have each changed, we have each redefined ourselves with influences from the best of James.

A charitable foundation wisely being managed by friends of James who are now professionals with families of their own will award the 18th James Ratcliffe Scholarship this year to a deserving student young enough that they could have never met James.

There are many wonderful stories of how James’ life, through his death, brought positive changes to the world that surrounded his life. The people, who loved him in life, still love him long after his death.

If I have a message on this anniversary, it would be to forgive the mistakes of others.

Forgiving frees us from carrying the anger for the wrongs of others. Forgiving does not free them from the responsibility for those wrongdoings, or from the requirement for them to mitigate the damage they have caused. We forgive for us, not for them.

Anger is a cancer of the human soul that consumes love. If we remain angry our soul becomes a brittle hard hollow shell, we lose our humanity. If we forgive, we stop the cancer of anger from emptying our soul, and we can begin to rebuild our life and our love of others and our love of life.

We must also forgive the Universe for its unthinking randomness that brings pain to so many of us. We cannot change the Universe, but if we harbor anger at the Universe we destroy ourselves and our own life.

Please find forgiveness for those who have wronged you. When forgiveness seems most impossible, it is likely the only key to the prison of anger.  

Be well and peaceful. Seek to build and rebuild love each and every day, and grant forgiveness for those who have failed you.

Not Fair

The only fairness we can find in death is that, without exception, death will eventually come to each and every one of us. Death is never fair. it has no ability to be fair.

The Universe is unemotional, a massively chaotic place ruled by rigid mechanical laws. There is no fundamental capacity in those mechanical laws for what we humans call emotion. Actions and reactions are rigidly defined.

Without emotion, there can be no concept of intent of if or when a death happens. I don’t believe that the Universe ever intends to do anything specific, so it doesn’t specifically choose who will die today and who will live another day.

The journey of grief will usually bring a discussion of fairness, and even in the death of a very old person we will express that this death just wasn’t fair. The person who died would perhaps have been treated more fairly if they had lived another day, another week, another year. Declaring the death unfair helps us to define targets for the negative energy and anger that we need to deflect and re-direct in grief.

Timeliness is a concept and discussion of fairness in death is further skewed by the decedent’s age, the young they died the more unfair it seems. The death of a child or young person seems more unfair than any other death. We mourn the loss of the life, but we also mourn the loss of our hoped and dreams for that life.

When our son James died eighteen years ago at age twenty in a firefighter training accident, he was a perfect child on a path to what we believed would be greatness. The world lost that potential, the compassion, the sense of morals and ethics we had helped him develop. We especially miss him when his friends make each logical step of life, a graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child. We express anger at the Universe because the random Universe that brought his death stole those joyous steps in our son’s life from us.

The perceived fairness is further skewed and magnified by causes of death. A tragic accident, a tragic disease, a horrible crime, suicide and every known cause of death are basically the intersection of a random emotionless Universe and our human beliefs and interpretations of the value of our lives and the uniquely human concept of fairness.

These discussions of fairness in death are not a waste of time. These discussions are important human emotions in the evolved process of grief.

Our analysis of the fairness of a loss may shape our grief, and likely reshape the rest of our lives. In the unfairness of losses of life to accidents involving drinking and driving, the unfairness of the loss of innocent lives brought organizations lobbying and shaping new initiatives and laws to reduce those difficult losses for others. The people who have been saved the grief of such losses will never specifically know that their lives have been spared by the efforts rooted in the loss of a loved one. But, the efforts and memories of how unfairly someone died has shifted society ever so slightly, reducing the number of drunk drivers reduces the number of opportunities for completely random intersections with those who might have become innocent victims.

Cancer is a disease of randomness. Our own bodies randomly create the cancer that might kill us, that cancer slips under the fence of our immune system and a silent killer quietly develops. We know that environmental and lifestyle factors can shift the odds towards or away from some cancers, but cancer is just a random event brought to us by the incredible complexity and statistically minute imperfections of basic human life.

In grief, I found some small comfort in the randomness of the Universe. The Universe has broad shoulders and no capacity to care what we think, so it’s an ideal dumping ground for any anger we find in a death. What you can’t explain can just be blamed on the Universe. Keeping the anger within yourself will destroy your soul over time, dumping it on another person will destroy them, but the Universe has unlimited capacity to absorb your anger.

The most difficult death for me to clear of residual anger remains my brother’s suicide in 2000 at age 43. It will always come back to me that while the randomness of the Universe contributed to the creation of his well hidden pain, Mike was complicit, and he chose to bring death to himself one day. As I age and ponder death and grief more calmly, it is still suicide that brings the most anger back to me.

You are grieving a death. That death is unfair, because all death lacks any sense of fairness. My simple question is will you allow that unfair death to diminish you? Will grief injure you, rob you of life’s enjoyment, rob you of love of others, and rob you of love of life? If you accept or allow those negative things to happen, then you are complicit in damaging yourself beyond the inherent damage of the loss itself.

I suggest that it’s far better to be taught by grief. Come to better understandings of the purpose of life by exploring the feelings of the loss of a loved one. These explorations will add positive value to your daily life as you will love more deeply, more urgently and with more gratitude for the love you build in your own life.

How would your lost loved one wish you to grieve them?

By diminishing or by growing?

Be well, seek peace and build and rebuild love each and every day.