If you're here reading this post, chances are you've just had something tragic happen. Someone you care about has ended their life through suicide. I am so sorry about that loss. I know that there is nothing that can take away that ache that you're feeling right now.
Trust me, if I had a magic wand, I would rewind time and we would change all of this.
When something like this happens, our minds fill with so many questions. We replay everything over and over. We look for things we didn't notice. We beat ourselves up. We ask so many questions.
The replays start going faster in our minds. Now it seems like every piece clicks together, and yet there are still missing pieces. The guilt pierces us as we find all of the things we could have done differently, that may have prevented this from happening at all. The ache is all consuming.
As those thoughts race faster and faster, our emotions grow bigger by the second. What starts out as shock soon turns to anguish and then…anger.
When we're hurting and trying to make sense of things, our emotions embark on a quest to make meaning out of agony. Eventually, most of those quests somehow lead us to a place of anger. In some cases, it can make total sense why we would feel angry after someone we care about takes their own life. In other instances, we may beat ourselves up for feeling that way.
It can feel like nothing makes sense at all. As soon as we figure out one thing, something else comes along and makes us question everything.
Disclaimer: No two situations with suicide are the exact same. I have worked with individuals on various sides of this issue, from those who tried to end their life, to those who have discovered a loved one who had died, to those who were blamed for the death of a loved one, and the loved ones left behind who are trying to make sense of it all. Depending on which role you are in, some parts of this particular post may not apply to you, and you may read something that doesn't fit your situation.
As I wrote this post, I was thinking about high school students who have lost a friend to suicide, and this post was written to help them and their parents to understand a bit more about why they are feeling so angry. Parts of this post may be helpful to you, and you may find other parts aren't helpful. Please take what fits for you and ignore the parts that don't, and know that nothing written here is meant to hurt or offend anyone.
So let's focus on just one piece of everything that's happening right now.
Let's talk about how anger works…
Before we dive into all of the parts of feeling angry after suicide, let's first spend some time talking about anger in general. Anger gets a bad rap, but it's an essential emotion in life. In fact, it's one of the easiest emotions to feel and to show.
I often refer to anger as a “mask emotion.” Rarely is anger just about anger. It's usually rooted in pain, fear, sadness, hurt, and confusion. It comes to the surface fast and it moves quickly once it's set into motion. When we are feeling tired, hungry, sleepy, or overwhelmed, it's especially easy for anger to bubble up to the surface.
And if we're grieving- we are all of those things. We're scared that someone else could die, too. We don't fully understand why it happened. We're hurt that they would choose to leave us.
In the midst of that immense aching, anger starts to bubble inside of us.
Anger actually functions as a protective coating.
Think about a mama tiger. When she gets angry, she is protecting her babies. Her fur stands up on her back, she hisses, she paws in the air to threaten, and she may even lunge. Her babies can't fully fend for themselves, so she is protecting their vunerability.
Anger does the same thing for us. Our anger can be a protective layer against those vulnerable, sensitive feelings like fear, sadness, confusion, and agony. Feeling that depth of sadness takes a lot out on our physical bodies. Anger not only protects those tender emotions, but it also revs up our body's adrenaline, and give us a boost of energy.
And when we're grieving- we can definitely use a surge of energy. Grieving takes a lot out of us, and it can be hard to even feel motivated to walk across the room. So the adrenaline and cortisol rush that can accompany feeling angry can help push us out of that deep, sad place.
What's the anger about?
It can feel backwards to be so angry with someone who was hurting that deeply. But anger is a natural response during the grieving and healing process after someone we love loses their life, especially when they lose their life to suicide. We may find our anger directed at ourself, at the person, or at others who played a role by hurting the other person or by not doing anything that could have helped us.
Anger at the person who died
Why didn't you tell me it was this bad? I knew you were hurting, but I didn't know you wanted to die. I even asked you, and you said no, you weren't thinking about suicide. But you did it anyway. How could you do this? Did you even think about me? Did you even care? Is it only about you?
In the middle of the shock of something like this happening, and the sadness over never being able to talk with them again, there's also a sense of betrayal. How could they not tell us? How could they not even think about the pain they would be causing to us? If they knew that hurting was so bad, wouldn't they know how we would feel?
Anger at ourselves
Why didn't I do more? I shouldn't have believed him when he said he was fine. I should have kept pushing, kept asking, and insisted. I shouldn't have let him leave. I should have made him stay. I can't believe I was so stupid to not realize that's what he was thinking. How can I forgive myself for not seeing this coming?
Blame is a natural thing that happens in our minds, especially when we are trying to understand something. If we are to blame, then it means we can do something differently in the future. That gives us a sense of control and sometimes even peace of mind. “This won't happen to me again because I can control things. I can do something different.” I'll save my sermon on blame for another time, but just remember: while blame may be a natural place that our brain goes, blame isn't actually helpful. Sometimes it can keep us stuck feeling angry.
Anger at others
Why would they say something like that to her? They know better. They know she worries about that all of the time. How can they be so stupid! If they had never said that, then she would be here right now. I don't think I can ever be in the same room with them again. They saw how she reacted. They knew it devastated her, and yet, they did nothing. I could just scream.
The pieces of our loved one's life start becoming more clear when they die. Things that we didn't pay attention to before, and things that we may have dismissed as not that important suddenly start to fit into place. We start to see just how their life felt to them, and even the things they may have been trying to tell us along the way. It's easy to see all of the possibilites that could have played a role in what happened.
Even then, we may never know exactly how they felt about everything, and how every part of their life was knit together in their mind. When it comes to feelings, especially regarding hope, perception is everything. In the heat of the moment when emotions are running high, particularly painful emotions, we don't tend to make the best decisions. This is often when people decide to end their life.
We may know certain conversations that hurt our loved one. We may know the people who said those things to them, and we may feel anger directed towards a specific person in their life or family. This can be especially hard, and it can make our anger feel justified. Sometimes, we don't have all of the facts.
At a time like this, when our minds are desperate to make sense of what has happened, it's easy to cling to blaming someone else in their inner circle for what happened. Please keep in mind that we may never know all of the conversations or their perceptions about the facts we do know.
Anger at the world
I just don't get it. Fine, your beliefs say that people who are sinners go to hell. But did that mean you were free to say those things to them? I can't believe people can be so insensitive. Why can't they mind their own business? Why couldn't they have left them alone? If you don't like them, fine. Ignore them. But don't hurt them.
The world can be an unforgiving place, especially when things can travel so quickly over the internet. Society is slow to change, and it carries a mixed message that invites us to fit in and to be unique all at the same time. It's confusing and can be impossible. When we don't have others in our life who truly do get us, it's easy to give more power to what nameless voices tell us to do.
Because those voices can make us doubt, it can also make it scary to open up and share things with others- even with caring friends and family. Losing some random person on the internet as a friend is one thing, but sharing too much of yourself and being rejected by someone who means a lot to you is even tougher. That makes it hard for them to open up and tell us things, even when we genuinely want them to share.
Anger versus sadness
Anger allows us to face some of the hard questions a little differently than when we are in a place of sadness. Let's go back through the sample thoughts I shared above and look at them from an anger perspective versus a sadness perspective.
Why didn't you tell me it was this bad? How could you do this? Did you even think about me? Did you even care? Is it only about you?
If I am sad and those questions are going through my mind, I may actually be blaming myself. I should have done more. I could have stopped this. It's my fault that I didn't try to help you.
When we shift to a place of anger, that blame can shift from it being my fault, to it being someone else's fault. You knew they would never understand, yet you kept trying to talk to them about it anyway. You knew they would call you names and say things that would just hurt you.
Both sadness and anger are places of pain, and when the pain is too much- we do something different to make it stop. It doesn't matter if it's physical pain or emotional pain, or if we are feeling sad or angry. If we are beating ourselves up so much that we can't function, sometimes our brain will shift to a place of anger as a way to stop hurting by externalizing the pain. If we feel helpless and at the mercy of others, our brain may move away from anger towards sadness, because blaming ourselves means we can actually make some kind of difference. It keeps us from feeling helpless.
How anger can hurt when you're grieving
Anger definitely serves a purpose, and it can help some in the grieving process. However, it can also backfire.
No one enjoys feeling angry. And no one likes being around an angry person. Emotions are contagious, and if someone around you is feeling angry, it can feel uncomfortable. Our first instinct is to get away from anger. It keeps us safe.
When we are grieving, there's a back and forth that happens between wanting to be alone and needing to be around others.
We have substantial research that shows us that when we are scared or upset, that being around a loved one can actually help reduce physical and emotional pain, especially if they hold our hand or give us a hug. (Sidenote: if that person has hurt our feelings or isn't on the same page with us, it doesn't always comfort us.)
If our anger has really festered and people are backing up to give us some space (think of that mama tiger- we'd all back up in that situation), then it's going to be hard to get some of that comfort we need.
It's ok to feel angry- just don't stay in that place forever
Please don't think that you should feel angry, or that you are doing something wrong if you feel angry. Emotions can be confusing at times, and often we don't even fully understand why we are feeling a certain way. It's OK to experience your emotions. Stuffing them down usually backfires.
That doesn't mean you should go throw chairs and turn tables upsidedown. But you can feel angry. Your friend has died. You are hurt. You miss them. You wish someone had done something different- be it you, them, someone else, or the whole wide world.
Talking about the way you are feeling with someone else is one of the most effective ways to feel the emotions in a healthy way, without shoving them away. The person you talk to doesn't have to have the answers. If they just listen and ask you to keep talking or to tell you more, you'll usually be able to get out the parts that need to come out.
It doesn't have to be a long conversation-unless that's just how it ends up going. Short talks that are three to five minutes can be wonderful. The purpose is to let out some steam.
I am broken hearted that you have lost someone you care about. I know this is gut-wrenching and it makes no sense. I know you are hurting, and the whiplash of emotions is exhausting. I know there's not a lot that anyone can say to you that will make this feel better.
I want you to remember that anger is part of the grieving process. It's OK to feel angry. It's OK if you never feel angry. Anger can serve a valuable purpose. It can help to give your body a burst of energy when you don't even know if you can walk from the couch to your bed. It can help you to find some relief from beating yourself up. It can help you to see things from a different angle.
It may feel confusing and awful for a while. But you aren't alone. Please talk with someone about how you're feeling- a friend, a family member, a teacher, a co-worker, a doctor or nurse, a law enforcement officer, a therapist, a neighbor, anyone. If you feel like you can't talk to any of those people about how you're feeling, there are crisis textlines you can contact by texting 741741, or you can connect with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) to give you resources and insights on what happened and what you can do now.