Grief Within the Arts: Anger
Updated: Jul 25
“The will to save a life is not the power to stop a death.” Kübler-Ross and Kessler hits the heart of it here as we continue to move into a world without the arts as we once knew it. It's a time when we’re watching something that once was, unravel in front of our eyes. What may come next is yet unknown, for we’re still in the act of being “done-to”, stuck in the liminal space of neither being here nor there. And it’s bloody hard. Waiting is really frickin' hard.
Samuel Beckett would be having a field day writing about the absurdity of this global waiting room we’re all in. A room that's being filled with banana loafs, zoom, Joe Wicks and trying to pull a new ACE funding app out of our arses. There are some doers and innovators out there trying to fill the void with new-normals, and there are those that are just being, maybe some catatonic with apathetic unrealised rage. Whichever way your riding this waiting out, know that you are doing just fine, even if it does feel like this really sucks.
So, as we venture into the world of Anger - Kübler-Ross & Kessler’s second stage in the grief cycle - I invite you to go gently and with care into these words. Take your time reading. Pause. Reflect. Be curious about what comes up for you as you move through. Notice your breath, your heartbeat, tensions within your body. Be openhearted. Notice the fire in the belly that may be stirred or notice its absence. I recommend you read from a grounded position, with a steady and consistent breath. Try to stay with these words as we move through anger, trusting that together we are journeying towards a greater sense of acceptance, healing and a continued hopeful softening of the spirit.
Anger. It’s not an emotion that is celebrated much in our society is it? Our society tends to cover anger up. It can be murky, unpredictable, chaotic, hot, explosive, rumbling, achy, punchy. Anger is often expressed through passive or indirect means, or it is bottled up. We see gritted teeth. Red faces. Clenched fists. We hear tight tones in polite words. Clipped remarks. Slammed doors. Anger is often sold as a destructive force to be avoided, which is understandable when it can lead to aggression or, in extremis, violence.
Anger is often followed by Guilt. Yep. Those two hang out a lot. I’ve heard Guilt tagging onto Anger quite a bit in the conversations with artists these past few weeks. As artists, we can certainly feel guilty about mourning the (temporary or permanent) loss or our creative vocations when we are all too often told that "the arts aren't really that important". We're told this when funding for the arts is cut from schools. We're told this when we're asked to work for free. We're told this when we're pitted against other industries that have "more" credit. Guilt can be Anger turned inwards, so watch out for that one. Kübler-Ross and Kessler touch upon this later on.
Guilt may also be felt when we turn our attention to the numbers of deaths we are hearing about, or even worse, experiencing to those that we love. If this is the case for you, then I truly am sorry for your loss. How Covid-19 is ravaging through already delicate lives, and how NHS & front-line workers are toiling tirelessly to save, protect and heal us, provide a sometimes needed perspective to help to contextualise our feelings. But, I'd like to say, that both narratives - the loss of life and the impending loss of the arts as we once knew them - can both take up some space. And as the world is now turning to the arts in our social-distanced and isolated lives in order to maintain wellbeing, learning, playing and sanity, then I'd say that the arts are life-savers and are, therefore, really important. And when we are loosing something that is important to us, it's okay to grieve.
It's also important to recognise that Anger is not all bad. It’s how we relate to it that can be tricky for ourselves and others. Anger can be an agent of creativity and healing if given space to be felt and expressed in safe ways. Anger can tell us that we care about something. Anger can indicate that we feel hurt. Anger can protect the hurt through offensive behaviour. Anger is a close companion to passion and can shed light on things or people that we love … and have lost, or in this liminal time, may be still be in the act of losing.
Ultimately, whether we sit comfortably with it or not, anger is an important part of the grieving process.
So, like we did with denial, let’s turn to the wise words of Kübler-Ross & Kessler as they take us through anger within the five-stages-of-grief. As they refer to loved ones, what do we hear if we replaced the person with our artistic processes? What resonates with you? How is anger turning up in your life? Do you see it in yourself, or in those around you? It’s certainly something I’m feeling from time to time, and anger is something I’m witnessing in artists I’m working with in this time of unprecedented change.
“This stage presents itself in many ways: anger at your loved one that he didn’t take better care of himself or anger that you didn’t take better care of him. Anger does not have to be logical or valid. You may be angry that you didn’t see this coming and when you did, nothing could stop it. You may be angry at the doctors for not being able to save someone dear to you. You may be angry that bad things could happen to someone who meant so much to you.
You may be angry that you’re left behind and you should have had more time together. You know intellectually that your loved one didn’t want to die. But emotionally, all you know is that he did die. It was not supposed to happen, or at least not now.
It is important to remember that the anger surfaces once you are feeling safe enough to know you will probably survive whatever comes. At first, the fact that you lived through the loss is surprising you. Then more feelings hit, and anger is usually at the front of the line as feelings of sadness, panic, hurt, and loneliness also appear, stronger than ever. Loved ones and friends are often taken aback by these feelings, because they surface just as you were beginning to function at a basic level.
You may also be angry with yourself that you couldn’t stop it from happening. Not that you had the power, but you had the will. The will to save a life is not the power to stop a death. But, most of all, you may be angry at this unexpected, underserved, and unwanted situation in which you find yourself.
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be wiling to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal.
Underneath anger is pain, your pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned, but we live in a society that fears anger. People often tell us our anger is misplaced, inappropriate, or disproportionate. Some people may feel your anger is harsh or too much. It is their problem if they don’t know how to deal with it. Unfortunately for them, they too will know the anger of loss someday. But for now, your job is to honour your anger by allowing yourself to be angry. Scream if you need to. Find a solitary place to let it out.
Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first grief feels like being lost at sea: no connection to anything. Then you get angry at someone [or something, and] suddenly you have a structure – your anger towards them / [it]. The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection.
You also may experience feelings of guilt, which is anger turned inward on yourself. But you are not to blame. If you could change things, you would, but you can’t. Anger affirms that you can feel, that you did love, and that you have lost.
Don’t let anyone diminish the importance of feeling your anger fully. And don’t let anyone criticize your anger, not even you.
As we sit in this (frickin' frustrating) waiting room, I want Anger to know that it has a place at the table. We want to hear from you. Tell us what you know. We’re listening.
[Quotes are from "On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss" by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler]