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My Loved One Died

and I’m Angry at Myself

Excerpt from the book Coping with Anger During Bereavement

By Bob Baugher, Carol Hankins, & Gary Hankins

When people become angry following the death of a loved one (or, in some cases, prior to the death), there are a number of possible targets for their anger. One of them may be yourself. Here you are feeling bad enough each day as you cope with your grief and, on top of all this, you are angry at yourself. If this is you, continue reading.

We all have expectations of ourselves and when we fall short, we feel frustrated, angry, and perhaps guilty as well. Translated into self-talk, it can include words such as: I should, I must, I have to, I need to. When you are angry for things in the past, your words might be, I should’ve, I shouldn’t have, Why did (or didn’t) I? During bereavement, it can sound like this: “I must be strong, I must do this right, I shouldn’t feel this way, I need to work harder, or, I have to accomplish this goal.”

In addition to being angry at ourselves for not living up to expectations, we also might engage in hurtful self-actions in order to “pay ourselves back” for a perceived misdeed. Think abut it: when you did something wrong when you were a child, you got punished. Now here you are as an adult continuing that pattern—except you’re doing it to yourself! An example of this would be if you perceived that you might have contributed in some way to someone’s death. It matters not whether you actually had anything whatsoever to do with the death. The important thing here is that you perceived you did or failed to do something. As you know, perception is everything.

Behaviors that people engage in to pay themselves back include: self-hatred, neglect of health, self-punishment, deprivation of pleasure, and risk-taking. See if any of the following types of self-directed anger relate to you:

Self-hatred. If you feel any responsibility for your loved one’s death, you may have made some of the following statements to yourself: “I’m a bad person.” “I hate myself.” “How could I have done that (or failed to do it)?” “Everyone would be better off if I were dead.”

Neglect of health. People who hate themselves may say things such as:

Why do anything for myself?

I don’t deserve it.

Why go to the doctor?

If I become (more) ill, so what? I deserve it.

If I don’t feel like eating, why force it? I’m not worth it.

This may be one of the reasons that bereaved people tend to have more health problems. Sometimes they feel that they do not have a “right” to take care of themselves. As a result of their lack of preventive self-care, they develop health problems.

Self-Punishment. Stemming from self-hatred, self-punishment behaviors include such physical actions toward oneself as hitting, slapping, cutting, biting, scratching, and butting one’s head.

Deprivation of pleasure. Self-hatred can also take the form of depriving oneself of engaging in activities that formerly resulted in feelings of pleasure. Examples include depriving oneself of: going out with friends, going to a movie, a sports event, or a dinner, laughing, engaging in sexual relations, participating in recreational activities, or taking a vacation.

Risk-taking. Some people react to a loved one’s death by feeling that life isn’t worth living, and begin to take risks that they wouldn’t ordinarily take. Their self-talk may go something like this: “So what if I die or get hurt--it doesn’t really matter.” Examples of risk-taking are: reckless driving, experimenting with addictive drugs, unprotected sex with multiple partners, and trying dangerous activities without guidance (e.g., mountain climbing or hang-gliding).

Let’s look next at what you can do to work on your self-anger. These suggestions come from people who have been through their own self-anger:

Ask yourself the following question: How much more punishment should I continue to give myself. How much punishment is enough?

If my deceased loved one could suddenly appear, what would he or she say about how I’ve been hurting myself? In other words, at the moment I begin to treat myself in a negative fashion, I need to say, “What would ____________ say right now?”

Can I begin to change the negative words I’ve been saying to myself? For example, can I stop calling myself the following negative things, (fill in) ________________, ________________, _________________.

In what kind of positive ways can I give myself permission to take care of myself?

With whom can I begin to share my thoughts of anger toward myself? As you are aware, keeping a secret of these negative actions toward yourself will prolong the pain. Perhaps this is what you wish to do right now in your life: continue giving yourself more pain in order to “atone for your sins.” However, I ask you again: How much self-punishment is enough? It follows that, when you share your secretive self-punishing actions with one or more caring people, it becomes the first step toward letting go of some of your self-anger. As you finish this article, are you going to tell someone or will you get up, walk away, and continue to beat yourself up?

I wish you the best as you make this important decision and I would guess that, if your deceased loved one is looking down on you, he or she is also wishing you the best. Don’t you agree?


Dr. Bob

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