A couple of years ago, an acquaintance passed away. We weren’t particularly close, but she was very dear to another friend of mine, the woman who’d introduced us, and so the feelings I experienced at her loss extended to my grieving friend, as well.
Debbe died, though, unnecessarily, wastefully, of medical error. So when I found myself in a blue funk on the day after her death, it took me nearly another 24 hours to comprehend why I was so upset. I was sad that she was gone, yes; sadder still for the grandchildren whom she had been raising, and concerned for their futures, too. I longed to comfort the friend who was most deeply feeling her loss. But despite all these tumultuous emotions, I hadn’t known Debbe very well. I wasn’t mourning intensely. Why, then, I wondered, was I so terribly sad?
I discussed the problem with that “other self” in my own mind (I’ve often wondered, when I’m asking myself a question, who precisely it is that I’m talking to?) Was the real cause of my distress the fact that Debbe was a couple of years younger than I? Had her passing brought home to me the truth of my own mortality? I didn’t think so. I’d lost a good many acquaintances of my own age or younger in my lifetime, and had, in fact, recently spent quite a bit of time making my own end-of-life plans. I didn’t believe that Debbe’s passing was a sudden and jarring reminder of my own mortality.
I was saddened for others, but that didn’t explain the intensity of my feelings.
Finally, after almost a day of puzzling through my feelings, I was able to put a name to them: anger. I was angry – bitterly, desperately, furiously angry, that Debbe had died due to mistakes by the medical professionals involved in her care. She was dead due to their blithe prescribing of more and more antibiotics for longer and longer terms, until the very medications meant to heal her had turned on her immune system and destroyed it, shutting down her kidneys and killing her.
I was so bitterly, furiously angry at the wrongness of it, of a life wasted and other lives turned topsy-turvy, due to straightforward carelessness. I was outraged at negligence, at sloppiness, at inattention, in a profession in which a failure of precision literally makes the difference between life and death.
I am still angry and sad over her needless death. But my takeaway from this situation is the discovery of just how often I am so disassociated from my own feelings that I can sometimes identify them only with enormous effort. How is it, I later asked myself, that it took me more than a day to recognize my own fury?
Naming my emotion was difficult; why it took so long is easier for me to answer: early training. My youth was spent in a household where fury and rage were constant. Screaming, shouting quarrels were a common occurrence. Precious things were thrown and broken, doors were slammed until they bounced off hinges. Faces were slapped; punches were thrown. Obscenities were shrieked.
But not by me. Not by my siblings.
No matter what was happening in our household, we children dared not express our anger at the situation–neither verbally or physically. Even as teenagers, with the usual adolescent tendency to smart-aleck remarks and snappishness, we were carefully restrained in our behavior. And when I vented my fury on paper, my diary was sought out and read, and then used against me.
I learned to be very cautious of anger: to tuck it away, hidden within burning resentment; to avoid confrontation. I learned to bark in irritation over things that didn’t really matter rather than to say what had truly upset me; to fume silently. Even through the crumbling of my 19-year marriage, I can recall only two occasions where I was driven to shouting at my husband.
None of this is healthy or conducive to good relationships, but unlearning such early training is difficult. Just how difficult was driven home to me when I found myself unable to identify my anger over a friend’s needless death.
Anger will always frighten me, will always be a specter to be carefully controlled. Yet perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing. The world might well be a safer place if more children were, from an early age, taught techniques to identify and properly deal with anger–to control its expression; to find healthy ways to express rage.
But not to learn, as I learned, to entirely deny it. Not to spend a lifetime hiding from their own rage and negating it.
I am angry over Debbe’s wasteful, needless death. And I am proud of that just and righteous anger.