A Year of Lockdown Grief: Part 2 – Anger

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

When my father died, I got a lot of messages. From friends, family, acquaintances, distant relatives, old school friends, online connections, and more.

Anger is a known component of the grief process. Lockdown makes it an even more substantial one.

All of them pretty much said the same things.

“I’m so sorry for your loss”.

“I’m thinking of you”.

“I wish there was something I could do to help”.

That last one was particularly prominent. It was unarguably nice of so many people, many of whom didn’t really know me all that well, to want to come to my aid, but be genuinely frustrated at being unable to do so, thanks to the pandemic and lockdown. You’d be forgiven for concluding that this would have made me feel supported, cared for, loved.

You’d be wrong though. By and large, these messages made me angry. To a daft extent. Someone I’d not spoken to for a long time would message to say they wished they could help, and my response was usually something like:

“Oh, do you now? Well, you can’t. And you know you can’t. You live hundreds of miles away, and we’re in the middle of a lockdown. You’re not allowed to go 10 minutes from your house, let alone cross the country to do favours for me. And now, due to social norms, I have to be nice and respond gratefully, despite being at my lowest possible ebb. The only outcome of this message is to make you feel better, and make me feel worse, because you get to feel like you’ve done something while I’m reminded of the fact that nobody can help me through this. You’ve basically sent me ‘thoughts and prayers’. Well, I don’t want them. Screw you!”

For the record, I never actually said any of this, to anyone. My emotions were in turmoil for obvious reasons, but the rational aspects of my psyche still had enough clout to recognise that everyone getting in touch did so with 100% good intentions, and enough control to prevent me from acting on this unreasonable anger, and potentially ruining many important relationships in the process.

But still; the anger was there. And it was a close thing as to whether I could control it. And that’s really not like me. It was a part of grief I honestly wasn’t expecting.

Anger is both a well-known part of grief, and also quite surprising for many. It’s weird.

Maybe it’s just me, but I never really thought about anger being part of the grieving process. On paper, this seems daft; however misunderstood the famous five-stages-of grief model may be (see last week’s post), anger is a prominent part of it, and has been from the beginning.

Even so, I’d argue that when you think of someone going through grief, them being furious isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Some have even referred to anger as the ‘hidden’ part of grief. This isn’t great, as unprocessed anger can lead to stress and harm to your wellbeing, and one’s mental wellbeing is already being hammered by grief, so adding more issues on top of that isn’t good for anyone.

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This makes it all the more surprising that the anger aspect of grief is so… overlooked? It makes perfect sense that those experiencing significant loss would be angry. Perceived injustice and unfairness are reliable causes of anger for the human brain, and when is losing a loved one ever going to feel fair and just? I can certainly say my father didn’t deserve to die in the manner he did. It’s a massive injustice, but one I, and countless others, can do nothing about. Why wouldn’t we be angry?

And not being able to do anything about it is another important aspect. Another thing that makes people angry is loss of personal autonomy. If something directly affects us and we recognise that we have no control over it, or way to prevent or fix it, it typically makes us angry, even if it’s something as small scale as losing a tooth. We can do nothing about it when a loved one passes away, nothing to prevent the pain of it. Instinctively, that makes us angry. Hence, anger is a prominent part of the grieving process.

Someone experiencing sadness and loss is vulnerable, passive. An enraged person is not.

So why is anger often overlooked as part of grief? My guess is, it doesn’t fit the cultural preconception of what someone enduring grief is ‘meant’ to be like. You think of someone going through a painful loss, you typically think of someone overwhelmed by sadness, unable to function, in dire need of help and support. Essentially, you think of someone vulnerable, someone reduced in various ways. And this is often good; we’re a cooperative species at heart, and we want to help those we care about when they need it.

Anger doesn’t conform to this, though. We instinctively see anger in others as a threat, and often adapt our behaviours accordingly, whether we want to or not. The idea of seeing someone in the throes of grief as a threat? That doesn’t gel well with our preconceived notions of how it works. We’re supposed to fear the reaper, not fear the griever.

But then, whoever said grief was logical, or straightforward? That anger is a part of it makes perfect sense when you think about it.

And this is even more true during lockdown. The loss of autonomy is amplified across a societal level, with all the rules and regulations keeping us in place and apart. The helplessness at the loss of the departed is enhanced by the cause of it being mentioned anywhere and everywhere, by it being a tangible presence in everyone’s daily life.

And if that weren’t enough, the news keeps flagging up even more stuff to induce fury. Like our supposed leaders making things worse. In my case, as much as I wanted, needed to have people help me with the fallout from my father’s death, I couldn’t. I knew how deadly COVID19 was, and stuck to the rules. The idea of inflicting my pain on anyone else via my actions was unconscionable.

But then, as I was in throes of this, we learned that Dominic Cummings, the man essentially running the country, flagrantly broke the rules. And refused to apologise, or even acknowledge any wrongdoing. And then Boris Johnson, our apparent Prime Minister, said he did “what any good father would have done”.

I had rigorously obeyed the rules, no matter how much pain it caused me, because I thought I was being a good parent and citizen. And then my own Prime Minister tells me this actually meant I didn’t care enough. Can you imagine how angry this made me, and countless others?

And now, following multiple more scandals and examples of utter callousness, people are lining up to vote for him again, because the sun is out, pubs are reopening, and the British health service and research industries he and his mates have devastated with cuts have done a good job with the vaccines. So yeah, that’s not something that makes me less angry.

Unprocessed, undischarged anger is a big part of grief, and a big issue with people’s health and wellbeing. Lockdown serves to make those of us who’ve lost people angrier again, while preventing us from doing anything about it.

I suspect this will have consequences for some time to come.

This is part 2 of Dean Burnett’s series of articles on the experience of a year of grief during lockdown. Part 1, on Denial, is here. Dean Burnett covers all manner of things mental-health in his new book Psycho-Logical, available now from all good retailers.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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