Back in the day, I went through a layoff. Those of us being axed — 25% of the company — were called into the conference room, told we were being let go with no severance, and informed that the VP of HR had put together a workshop for us on the stages of grief. About two minutes into her presentation, one of the former sales reps interrupted, face growing redder with every word. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have time for this happy horseshit,” she shouted. “I need to go home and work on my resume, not sit here listening to this crap.”
The HR woman stared at her in perplexity. “That’s anger,” she said. “You’re not supposed to be there yet. Denial is the first stage.”
Up to that point I’d been trying to be gracious about her silly presentation, to give her credit for meaning well even if she was tone-deaf. But with that statement, she lost me too. Because — apparently unlike her — I’d actually read my Kubler-Ross. One of the key points I remembered is that while there are five distinct stages to grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — people don’t experience them in a linear progression. They might ricochet between, spend much longer in one stage than another, go through them in any order, skip over one or more entirely. There is no right way to grieve.
But anger is also one of the most challenging emotions, one we often resist because it can so easily flare out of control. We cringe away from other people’s wrath and sublimate or deny or repress our own. It’s not safe. It’s the space in which harsh words are spoken, relationships shattered, careers derailed, people wounded, lives destroyed.
Still, I have been learning to allow myself to feel anger when I think it’s justified. To acknowledge and experience it so it doesn’t explode into destructive rage. To know my limitations and curate my interactions so that, as much as possible, I can avoid people and situations that tapdance on my last nerve. And to acknowledge that sometimes anger is the vehicle that allows me to admit, and speak, truths I might otherwise avoid.
Earlier this week I thought I was moving from the depression stage of grief into acceptance. But on Thursday, everything got under my skin. By my lunch break, I was caught in an obsessive spiral of rage, literally shaking. (Two cans of Dr. Pepper on an empty stomach probably didn’t help.) So I took a drive out in the country and thought about why certain things were bothering me so much.
Those questions actually led to some valuable insights. In one case, an answer to a question I’ve been asking God — often with much metaphorical fist-shaking — for a very long time.
By the time I got back home, the combination of contemplative time and food had eased the worst of the rage, but I still felt angry.
The anger didn’t feel bad, though. It felt healing, cleansing. Like a sane response to the insane situation in which we find ourselves. Like a space where I could acknowledge truths that had been festering for months, maybe years, and think of ways to stand up for myself even if that meant consequences that had felt intolerable just weeks ago. It felt like shifting my expectations of myself and other people. Of resolving that certain things are going to change on the other side of COVID-19 and that there are behaviors I’m just not here for anymore.
Last summer I heard a priest speak on fire as a metaphor for cleansing. He talked about wildfires clearing away debris, making room for new growth. I realized I was in a season of walking through that kind of fire, and it was burning away a lot of impurities, although the process hurt like hell — and took much longer than I would have chosen. Some of what went up in those flames were relationships and activities that had been very dear to me. Sometimes I didn’t know what would be left beyond the ashes. But one night I thought God said, very clearly, “The fire you’re walking through is my love.” And that helped me make sense of it.
The anger this week feels like fire, too, but a different fire. Like I’m burning, rather than being burned. Clearing away some of my own debris, putting matches to kindling and watching to see what will fade into ash and smoke and what will gleam through like gold. What’s strong enough to survive, what has enough value to be worth keeping in my life, what needs to be cleared out to make space for new and better things.