We’re Not Built to Grieve This Way

Yesterday I was meeting people after an event in Minneapolis. A woman approached me, and as she began to speak, her voice quivered and she paused to collect herself. Looking up, she took a deep breath and said,

“I’m just so angry all the time, and I don’t like it. I hate how angry I am.”

I looked into her eyes and replied, “I’m not sure you’re angry. You may be—but have you ever considered that you might be grieving, that you may be in mourning right now?”

“Wow,” she said. “I never thought about it that way. That’s exactly what it feels like.”

Almost immediately she could name everything she was lamenting the loss of.

Grief looks a lot like anger on the outside. Sometimes it seems simply like unmerited rage, but it’s really the frustration the heart feels when it finds itself in trauma that it can’t make any sense of. The lashing out, is the pressure of our helplessness needing a release.

We’re not built for this situation. Our bodies and our brains aren’t equipped for this kind of protracted pain, this prolonged elevated urgency. Crisis isn’t supposed to be never-ending. This isn’t how grief is supposed to work.

When someone we love dies, they die one time and we spend the rest of our lives processing that singular event—but this is a daily losing, it is a perpetual death, a continual mourning. Every morning there always seems to be more new things to grieve over. Many people now find themselves here, continually sitting vigil over something that feels as though it has died. This woman recognized the mourning in herself once I asked her to.

I wonder what you’re grieving the loss of these days.
It may be your idea of God or country or family.
It maybe your belief in the goodness of people.
It may be a relationship with someone you once felt fully at home around.
It may be your sense of optimism about the future.
It may be the lightness you used to feel when you woke up in the morning.
It may be every single one of these things, and more that you can’t quite name right now.
Anger isn’t what you afflicted with it. It’s just a symptom of the heart sickness that is your grief.

Whatever you feel you’re attending the funeral of, realize that this will not always leave you at your best. You might be more impatient with people, more prone to angry outbursts, more emotionally untethered. And yes, while you don’t want to allow this grief to become toxic and make you only capable of rage—you also need to cut yourself some slack. Have some mercy on yourself, because you (like all people in mourning) deserve that gentleness. Grief is draining.

This is also something to remember, as we live alongside people, as we stare at them through smart phone screens, as we pass them on the street, as we rub shoulders with them at work, as sit across from them at the kitchen: many people are grieving right now too. 

They may not be dressed in black or have a band around their arm that gives them away, but their loss is crippling and their wounds are fresh, and they may respond in ways that seem to us like reckless anger—when in reality, they too are in mourning.

Yes, you might be angry, but that isn’t the bigger story here.
You’re simply grieving something that has died.
Go easy on yourself.


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32 thoughts on “We’re Not Built to Grieve This Way

  1. It’s called “complicated grief”; no body to bury but there is loss. Divorce is a form of complicated grief as is the rage/sorrow one feels after a disaster, such as a hurricane or fire that has devoured your home and/or community.

  2. John has this spark of soul genius to be able to say things like this. How much better is the world with the right thoughts! That is something nobody can take away from us. The power of our thoughts that can reframe a situation and ultimately , I believe this literally , can transform our world. Because in our thoughts we live and from our thoughts we act thanks John for another spiritual zinger!!!

  3. Thank you for your honesty, truth, and kindness. I am often angry, sad, and depressed with this world. Bad news all day long! But when I read your words I feel better. I know there are good people like you out there and I am encouraged to keep doing my part to make this a better world. God bless you!!

  4. So well stated. I watch TV and read the news only to feel more frustrated and more upset no matter who ‘won.’ It does feel like re-reading obituaries and trying to grasp that the person is gone. Do we try to remember all the great things but only to slip back to an altercation that made us angry or betrayed. We live our country and each time we hear more information we shake our head in disbelief. Love your column.

  5. I am grieving a lost marriage, and yes, anger is a part of that. To say that “anger is not anger, it’s grief,” subtly denies us the right to feel the very real anger we do feel. As a woman, society tells me it is not okay to be angry or to express my anger. Your essay just reinforced that. Yet I have every right to be very angry that my husband cheated and broke the lifetime covenant he made with me and our family. Anger is one of the stages of grief; let’s call it what it is. It’s not “either/or” but “both-and.”

  6. Shakespeare well understood the pain of despotism and it’s effect on its subjects. This was at the heart of two of his best known plays, Hamlet and Macbeth. Hamlet
    opens with a guard commenting on the kingdom “‘‘tis bitter cold/And I am sick at heart.” Hamlet, a noble Renaissance man, spends the rest of the play struggling to make sense of a kingdom where an uncle can kill a king and marry the queen—the representation of chaos. Macbeth, in seeking the power he believes promised to him by fate, kills a noble king and destroys Scotland. Prince Malcolm, in act 4, says: “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke./ It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/ is added to her wounds.” I often think of these lines. I never felt them as I do these last two years. I was at your talk in Minneapolis. You asked us why we had come. I now have an answer: fortification. That is what I find in your columns and in your talk on a cold January night when I was sick at heart.

  7. Uh, you were in Minneapolis yesterday and I didn’t know it? Bummer.
    I agree with this – have been depressed, apathetic, or maybe just grieving for about two years, and optimism for the future is probably what I’m grieving.

  8. I needed to hear this today. Your timing couldn’t be more impeccable. have been on the verge of, if not a full blown, existenstial crisis for months. Today has been particularly tumultuous. So, through tears I thank you. Please keep writing your inspiring messages. God, however one may perceive him to be, is speaking through you.

  9. john, this has to be one of your top 10 !! that is exactly how i feel, also. thank you. i look so forward to your posts. i read every post.

  10. Wow, thank you. The part that jumped out at me was, “It may be the lightness you used to feel when you woke up in the morning.” I used to be a morning person. I would wake up happy and enthusiastic for whatever I might encounter. Now, I wake up, and for a brief moment I wonder why I don’t want to get up and face the day, and then– I remember…..
    Thank you for your encouragement. Some days it’s the only glimmer of hope I see.

  11. Again, writing that hits everything I’m feeling! I do not want to feel this anger within —— never been who I am or how I have looked at the world. Trump encapsulates EVERYTHING that feels black. Part of me has so much fear about the ability of our country to come back from this. Never give up hope & John Pavlovitz, thank you for expressing, perfectly, in words what my heart is aching from. Grief! perspective on a Sunday. Thank you!

  12. Grace demolishes anger and forgiveness is a true labor of love.

    Every day when you see your enemy who harmed you— and they have not made amends— in fact they mock and disparage you instead— you forgive them again and again and again…

    you never stop forgiving

    Jesus said– “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

    It’s a comfort to know that.

  13. I, too, felt so much anger and frustration, had overwhelming anxiety at times, and a family member “disowned” me for my anger.
    The anger is real…traumatic death made me angry. This unexpected, “it didn’t have to happen”, “it could have been prevented”, sudden death made me angry. I am still coming to grips with that loss as well as the anger and frustration that came with caring for an aging mother–the processes of the health care system for our elders is appalling–for 2 years following the unexpected death of my husband. Top that off with a couple of disrespectful, nasty stepchildren who were in his Will to receive money, and those “friends” who simply “don’t get it”, no wonder my grief looks like anger. It’s been five years since he died and I am finally beginning to feel a major shift within me and I am beginning to start thinking more clearly and remembering more. Along with the grief (anger) comes that disappointing memory loss/foggy brain…it all makes grief suck. But, as Willie Nelson sings, “Something You Get Through”, it is just that — something you get through.

  14. I think it’s possible to be both filled with rage about the current state of things AND grieving about the current state of things and the fact that people we thought we knew well are not the people we thought they were.

    I often wonder if this is how people in the former Yugoslavia felt when their friends and neighbors suddenly turned on each other. (The situation in the US hasn’t arisen to the deadly levels that conflict did–yet.)

  15. This makes sense to me. And… often, a person may be grieving the suppression of their own self-expression, which can emerge as anger or frustration.
    They may have been suppressed as a child, or influenced by a culture that does not allow them to express their full and awesome authentic, creative self.

  16. How eye opening, I think I am grieving. I had surgery a year ago and have had some pretty bad complications, I have a lot of nerve pain in my leg and can’t lift my foot anymore. The doctors are doing some testing but I just learned it’s not looking good…I’ve been angry for a long time-at the hospital who ignored me, the doctor and the team who operated on me, my family, my sweet husband who doesn’t deserve it and basically the entire world. Someone suggested I start grieving and I got very angry but now I’m starting to see this might be the first step. I can’t wait to stop being angry and feel more at peace, hopefully everyone who needs it finds peace also.

  17. Nail in head for me. I want my family to read your book. We just lost our two family dogs, the loves of our lives, 25 days apart. I am devastated, my kids have done some crying, but mostly anger.

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