A troublesome emotion – anger. People shy away from it, repress it, bottle it up. We are taught to not show anger as children, and that carries into adulthood. Don’t vent! And oh boy, if you’re a woman, you’d better keep anger under control! It’s not feminine; it’s not lady-like, you’re crazy if you feel this way.
And this holds even after your child dies – if you’re angry you’re nonetheless still expected to hide it.
Understandably, society does not encourage aggression. We don’t want fistfights in the street. Yet why is it assumed that a loss mother expressing anger would do it in a violent way? And more to the point:
what is it about women and anger that makes people so uncomfortable?
People are forever saying that grief is as unique as the person grieving yet when it comes to anger, that’s taboo, especially if you’re a woman. You can have depression, sure. PTSD, absolutely. Feel apathetic, lethargic, numb… but don’t say you feel rage – because that’s scary.
I was told I’d frighten the neighbours and become a social outcast if people saw my true feelings after my son was killed. When I said I wanted to scream in the forest, they said – really? When I frantically chopped wood with tears streaming down my face, they looked aghast.
What was I meant to do? At my most vulnerable, in acute grief, why was it that I had to fit into society’s expectations and keep quiet? How was that even fair or healthy?
And there lies the problem. When we as women feel these strong emotions, regarded as negative by society, we shy away from expressing them. We become inhibited. We internalize the rage and suffering and that in turn can make us ill. And if we don’t learn to keep quiet, we’ll probably be offered medication to help us keep it under control.
Silencing a mother who feels anger at the death of her child is, in my view, wrong. It’s as if the tenets of feminism never reached grief and we still have to behave in a way prescribed by others.
I’ve had it explained to me that my anger is a secondary emotion, that what lies behind rage is frustration, impotence, fear. When I first heard this, I really did have to think about it. I took my anger and looked at it, warts and all. It was like a gnarled, ugly ball, hot and confusing. It took some time to truly break it down into its parts and yes, some aspects of it were undoubtedly the result of another underlying emotion.
In my case, it’s true to say that part of my anger stems from another place. I do feel immense frustration at the justice system. I do rile at not having been able to save my son or ensure his killer never leaves jail. I do fear for my still-living children and what will happen once the killer is out again.
Frustration, impotence, fear: all three tick the box as being the underlying cause of my anger. Consequently, I can address them carefully and mindfully by exploring the issues I’m facing, and in time, get to the point that I let them go. So far so good.
But that’s not the end of the story.
There’s another anger that has nothing to do with frustration, impotence, and fear. It comes from somewhere else. It’s a place so deep inside of me that it reaches far beyond what I can touch intellectually.
It is primal. It’s pure instinct. It’s ancestral.
And it’s most definitely not a secondary emotion.
People talk about maternal instinct and usually refer to it in positive terms such as gentle, loving, patient. Yet all that instinct is there for one reason only – to protect our child, our DNA. From an evolutionary point of view, my sole purpose as a mother is to make sure my child survives.
The maternal drive to protect seems to kick in during pregnancy or at some point in the early stages of caregiving. Research using magnetic resonance imaging (M.R.I.) of mothers’ brain patterns shows:
“highly elaborate neural mechanism mediating maternal love and diverse and complex maternal behaviors for vigilant protectiveness.”
We affectionately call this ‘vigilant protectiveness’ mama-bear parenting. It’s triggered when we sense danger around our children. We’ll do anything to keep our babies and children safe. This instinct to protect is especially acute in new mothers because during pregnancy and lactation the brain suppresses the release of certain chemicals. This, in turn, makes us fearless. Furthermore, it seems that women have a “brain-hormone-behavior constellation” that are automatically primed for mothering whether they are the biological mother or not.
Nature is clever — it tries really hard to make lionesses out of us all and, more often than not, it succeeds.
As our children grow, we come to understand that we would gladly risk our lives just to make sure they’re safe. The need to protect, coupled with love, never leaves us.
So why is it so hard to accept that a mother may well feel primary, instinctive anger when her baby is stillborn? Or when her child dies waiting for a transplant? Or her teen is shot?
I don’t believe anyone has the right to tell a loss mother it’s wrong or not socially acceptable to feel angry. Society shouldn’t pathologize her emotions especially as it’s this very society which often looks for the cure in medication. Quite the opposite. She should be encouraged to ‘get it out’, to give expression to this deep pain that needs to find a voice. Give her a safe space where she can express it.
She needs understanding and support, not to be gagged by drugs or shamed into silence by societal expectations.
Physical exercise, creative expression, anger management techniques – these are all ways to expel the energy of anger without hurting or scaring anyone. I worked outside digging, planting and moving soil. I know of others who have smashed pre-made ice blocks or taken up iron forging to hammer out their rage. Try hitting the sofa with a tennis racquet; it works a treat for getting all the rage out on the soft cushions.
Like lancing a boil, it needs out. And once expressed fully and passionately, it will transform and give space for healing.
Let a mother who feels anger shout it from the rooftops if she so desires, let her punch a bag in the gym if it makes her feel better. Allow for this most basic of emotions, this vast energy of undiluted, primal grief, to be released safely and lovingly.
And above all, acknowledge that it exists. Because this anger is wild and deep and primal. And for many women, it’s natural to feel this way when it’s their child they’ve had to bury.
For further reading regarding the brain’s malleability and how it can forge new neural pathways in fathers if they’re very involved in caregiving, see “Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences.”