Updated: Mar 1, 2022
One of the hardest pills to swallow when a child is lost, is the reality that we are not in control. Not of the world at large. Not of our children. Not even all that often of ourselves.
We. Are. Not. In. Control.
But most of the time we walk around convincing ourselves that we are, running subconscious programs that make us believe we have some power to protect and defend, that if we simply make the right choices, we'll meet with all the outcomes we desire. This, I believe, is a byproduct of our problem-solving, pattern-seeking brains. One plus one makes two. Blue and yellow make green. Order. Purpose. Destiny. Reason. These are what lie behind everything in the universe. Right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Facing the objective truth that while we may hold influence on the world around us, while we may have some power over some of our own functions, we do not in point of fact have control is a paralyzing revelation. Not the kind of lotus-on-a-yoga-mat type of enlightenment we've romanticized in popular culture. But the fire-and-terror, shock-and-awe kind of vision experienced by ancient mystics. You know, the ones who pissed themselves and gave up everything they knew to travel the world and share their experience because they were forever altered (a.k.a. traumatized) by it.
This is not a pill that goes down easy. We spend a lifetime building psychological defenses against it. And some lucky number will reach their graves without ever having that delusion deeply challenged. But the rest of us? The rest of us will find ourselves time and again along a spectrum of uncertainty, walking the line between visceral, mind-numbing awareness and the irritating discomfort of not having things go your way.
When your child dies, you fall off the edge of that spectrum. Maybe you have a safety net of faith to fall into that says, I'm not in control, but God/Mother Nature/Allah/Buddha/Divine Design/Universal Intelligence is, and you take some comfort in that, even as you curse the very being you believe is holding you. Or, maybe like me, you blast a hole right through that motherfucker and drift in a cold, dark cosmos of unforgiving ambivalence for a while until you begin to reconstruct a platform of ideology beneath yourself again, a way to find your footing, to get steady, to walk on. In any case, the truth remains. Someone may be in control. Or someone may not. But it is firmly established that it is not you.
And this, I think, is where people fall into the anger trap.
Anger, I have been told, is a secondary emotion. It comes up as a reaction to hurt or fear. Pain, then, is the real feeling at the core of it. But pain is hard. Pain is uncomfortable. Pain is nebulous and pointless after its done its job of alerting you to the fact that something is not quite right. We have not been taught how to work with pain, or even how to just feel it. Instead, we are taught to run from pain. To numb it and medicate it and avoid it at all costs. And this is not to shame anyone for any chosen treatment in coping with their own pain, whether physical or emotional. Pain wears you down. Chronic pain must often be treated this way so the person experiencing it can retain some level of productivity and quality of life. So they can progress in their journey of healing.
Emotional pain, I often think, is the worse of the two. Because emotional pain is harder to define, harder to source. It has a way of raising its head like a prairie dog popping up from any number of holes, all connected beneath the surface. People let emotional pain go too far for too long without acknowledgement. They deny, dismiss, minimize, and ignore. But really, when has that ever worked for anyone? If my leg is one fire, I can pretend that it's not, but I'm still going to have third-degree burns.
That's where anger gets introduced. In the attempt to escape emotional pain, anger becomes a comfortable crutch for people who do not want to relinquish their delusions of control. Parents who lose a child face unimaginable emotional pain that is chronic. They are made to face the reality of their human limitations in the worst way possible. Which only compounds their pain because it means they cannot prevent it from happening again. Just as they couldn't the first time. This pain branches into a host of other emotions. Namely sorrow. And anger.
But sorrow is a passive sort of feeling that carries with it a certain acceptance of, even resignation to, a reality that we cannot abide but cannot change. Anger, however, is different. Anger is an active sort of feeling. Anger says we can and should and will do something about this reality we don't like. Anger incites action. It feels productive even when it isn't. It is meant to spur something—some change or measure, some cause or effect. Anger is energy producing where sorrow is energy draining. Sorrow pours something out of us, a tide of release and surrender to what is. But anger puts something into us, a volcano of motion and pressure to create or destroy. To transform. To change.
Anger makes us feel like gods. It makes us feel powerful and in control, even when it has us spinning out of control. Anger is a catalyst for change, so I don't want to disparage it. It has its place in the emotional spectrum. But the anger trap is something altogether different. It is the intentional stoking of rage fire again and again, long after that spark should have burnt out. It is the deliberate channeling of pain into something that feels more dynamic and engaging, less threatening and dangerous, even when that is clearly not the case. Anger is a way we bypass our pain when we don't know what to do with it. But anger should lead you somewhere—some course or change. When anger itself becomes the destination, it is just another dead end.
I see a lot of people, grieving parents and otherwise, fall down this trap. It's alluring, the potency of anger. So much more so than the destitution of sorrow. Anger whispers that you can remake the past by shaping the future to your liking. But anger lies. The past will never change, even though the future surely has. The energy of your anger should push your canoe down a new tributary. And once that is done, the anger must be released, consumed, burnt up by the action of change. But some people like to row in circles, churning the waters into a maelstrom that goes nowhere, staying stuck in the feeling of anger so they can maintain their delusions of grandeur, avoid the unmerciful truth of how small they are in a strange and vast universe.
It would be easy to cast this scenario along gender lines. Assume that men are more active and therefore more prone to anger, more vulnerable to the anger trap. Women more passive, more kin to sorrow. But I think we risk missing our own proclivities when we do that. I think we miss the opportunity to see ourselves and our loved ones more clearly. I know angry women and sad men. And to be fair, sorrow has a trap of its own, but that's better left to another post.
It's tempting when our child dies to give over to anger and to stay there. To get ankle-deep into the deathly chill of grief and think, Yeah, fuck this. I'm out. That lava pit over there looks interesting. How about a bonfire? Anyone down for a bonfire? There is certainly plenty to be angry about. If you run out of things, look around. You'll find something, I promise. And I won't say there's a right way to do grief. Though I do think there are a few wrong ways. The anger trap is a wrong way.
I have found in my own experience that if my grief isn't on the move, if it isn't consistently changing shape, rolling over and through me like an ocean I carry inside, then I've lost touch with it somewhere. I've fallen into a trap, a crevice or gorge. Some place it felt easy to slide down and rest a while, thinking stagnancy was preferable to unpredictability. And I have a duty then to go scouting for it, to follow that emotion to the source—the pain—and reconnect.
Where have you lost touch with your pain? What traps might you be coasting around in, avoiding the truth? It's never too late to climb out again, to go scouting, to remember, to reconnect. I know it hurts, but it's the only way forward. And in the end, it's far less damaging.