Why it’s so easy and common to get stuck in the third stage of grief


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In many ways, there is no “understanding” the loss of a loved one, but in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced a model aimed to demystify the grieving process with the 5, now sometimes 7 stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression, and acceptance. The big myth, though, is these steps build up to a staircase that leads to acceptance. Anyone can get stuck in or regress to any stage of grieving, and, anecdotally, I’ve seen a lot of friends boomerang back to the third stage: anger.

One of my friends passed several months ago, and in my social circle, anger seems to be the home-base grief emotion. I now field a lot of out-of-the-blue all-caps texts about how “SOMEONE SHOULD’VE DONE SOMETHING” and wondering “HOW COULD HER HUSBAND POST THAT ON FACEBOOK?” I’m not immune, either: I recently found myself in a shout-y “IT’S NOT FAIR” breakdown. My friends and I are all screaming, always.

It turns out there’s a psychological reason we’re all marooned in anger: It’s an easier mask to wear than other, more vulnerable-leaning feelings.

Like grief as a whole, anger is complicated to explain and easy to feel.

“Really, anger is just a shallow way of expressing grief,” says bereavement-care specialist Virginia A. Simpson. “It’s because it’s too hard to touch those softer emotions. We’ve all been taught…that strength is shown through being very rigid or angry. Anger is okay, because we see it every day. But if somebody cries, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ and they’ll apologize for their tears.”

With anger as a far more culturally acceptable everyday #mood, we’re able to use it—even if subconsciously—to cover just how much we’re hurting. And it can even pull double duty by hiding another emotion: fear. “Death opens a window to the great vulnerability we all face, and that’s scary,” Dr. Simpson says. “Plus, it’s also scary to face life without the person.” It’s really no wonder, then, that sometimes amid grief, it’s just preferable to wallow in anger. But going that route definitely gives us an out for working to access emotional honesty, which can give way to a vicious cycle. When we don’t understand why loss strikes us and why our loved ones are gone, anger bubbles up around that tough-to-accept kernel of “it’s not fair.”

“We believe, somehow, in the fairness of life,” Dr. Simpson says. “The person just gets angry because it’s unfair, and as long as you believe that life has any random fairness in it, you’re going to be very frustrated. But life is inherently unfair, and when you know that, you don’t go to anger.” But achieving a sense of acceptance after losing someone in a way that feels profoundly unfair won’t happen overnight (or possibly, ever). And that’s where we find the boomerang effect.

Obviously there isn’t a neat and tidy way to transition through the stages, but if you’re feeling enraged by a loss, maybe it’s time to get emotionally honest with yourself about how and why you’re hurting. Anger is sometimes a response to pushing down your emotions, whereas sadness and tears can promote a more cathartic release.

Simple support and compassion for yourself and for others experiencing deep sadness and grief is key for healing, Dr. Simpson says. “Do not try to ‘fix’ grief, whether you’re grieving or someone you love is in the thick of the process,” Dr. Simpson says. Instead, take the negative emotion and redirect it. Find a rage room or an adult coloring book. Go to the beach, the gym, the mall, therapy. Do something that allows you or your loved one to channel their emotions somewhere.

Like grief as a whole, anger is complicated to explain and easy to feel. So if you or someone you love is currently all-caps raging in the wake of a loss, know that your feelings are normal and there’s no tried-and-true itinerary to take in your process.

Also very complicated? Dealing with an ambiguous loss, but we have some thoughts, if you’re interested. While you’re at it, here’s how to work through your grudges with your loved ones who are still around.

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