“I want to kill him!” Michael declared. Not what I expected to hear as I sat down for a coffee to “catch up” with my old friend. Although it was said rather stiffly it was pretty clear from his body language that he was furious.
Curiosity and the open invitation made me ask “Who?”
Michael’s posture changed instantly, and his answer came out in slightly choked and muffled tones “my uncle”.
Michael is not usually the type to openly “wear” his emotions so I couldn’t imagine what had occurred between Michael and his uncle, Mark. They had been very close since Michael was young.
“He died last week,” Michael said. A wave of shame passed over his face having just remembered how he had declared his desire to kill his uncle moments before. Another flash and Michael’s expression became flat, like a stone. All of his emotions were now tightly packed back in, barely held in check just below the surface.
Michael’s response is pretty common. The bottom line is, it’s hard to lose someone. Harder still when the connection is strong. I’ve seen many people come through my office still gripping tightly to the pain and frustration of losing a loved one, years, even decades later. The question is, why? The answer, I believe, is guilt.
Have you ever had someone accidentally slam your fingers in a car door? Or maybe, step on your foot while waiting in line at the grocery store? When someone physically hurts you what happens? Fist, you feel the physical pain, and then you get angry, usually in proportion to the hurt you endured. Even though part of you knows that the kindly old lady in front of you at the shop didn’t mean to step on your foot, you might get the impulse to step on the mean ol’ bat’s foot in retribution. Not that you’d ever do it of course. Having had the urge to step on her foot you might start to feel a little foolish, or maybe even guilty for even entertaining the thought. But then, you feel a bit of shame, and you can see the woman for what she is, the kindly old lady who just lost her balance.
We respond in the same way to emotional pain. The death of a loved one represents a massive loss and a tremendous amount of hurt. Our natural response, when we get hurt, is to get angry. The amount of anger is equal to the amount of pain. So now we are left with a tremendous anger towards someone we have lost. It is difficult for the human mind to hold this kind of anger towards a loved one. “What kind of monster feels this angry towards someone who died? It’s not like they died on purpose. After all, I’m still alive!” is a thought I’ve heard, and had many times. So along with the anger comes a massive guilt about being angry towards the beloved dead. It seems to be at this point where people get stuck. Guilt or regret appear to be the emotion we try to avoid the most. As a result, we can be left with hurt, anger, and frustration that never seem to go away. So what’s the antidote?
Michael and I had moved our conversation from the coffee shop to the car. Michael and I sat together, trying to process the death of Uncle Mark.
“Mark was a real jerk for going off and dying like that, huh, I’d wanna murder him too,” I said, seriously but with a half smile.
My goal was to try and communicate “its ok, these feelings are normal”. At that moment, when he really let himself feel angry at Uncle Mark for leaving this world too soon a whole bunch of different things happened. Right on the heels of feeling so angry a wave of guilt came. His emotions were out, and nothing was going to stop them now. There was no avoiding that painful feeling. After a few huge sobs and several minutes of painful tears, his body relaxed. Not the slump of defeat, but with a sense of relief. In the hour that followed Michael, began to recount stories of growing up with Uncle Mark. How, he had been the ever present handyman at the family cabin. Always a pipe in his mouth, a sweet tobacco scent around him. He said he could almost feel Uncle Mark’s scratchy, stubbly face every time the man came to give him a hug. The warmth in Mark’s voice and demeanour was infectious, and I couldn’t help but mirror the feeling of joy in his memories.
The antidote, so simple and yet not easy, was to feel the anger. Feel the anger, and feel the remorse the comes with feeling such rage towards a loved one. It will open the door to all those lovely memories that remind you how precious the gift of your loved ones’ time in this lifetime is.
It is time to kill the dead. So they can live again.