Coping With a Dying Loved One's Anger

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross theorized that people often go through predictable stages when they are coping with inevitable death. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Not everyone goes through every stage, and certainly not always in order, but most dying people will experience a stage of anger and resentment.

Anger is a normal reaction to severe loss. A dying person stands to lose everything and everybody that is important to them. They may feel robbed ​by their illness. If they believe in a higher power, they may blame their God for causing their illness or not curing it. They might even resent their family and friends for continuing to live their lives while they slowly lose their own. They may feel that the doctor isn’t being straight with them, their nurses don’t respond to their demands quickly enough, and that the world has already started to forget them.

Older man with angry look
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Dealing With a Dying Person's Anger

Anger is easily projected onto others, so it’s only natural if your loved one’s anger is directed at you. If you find yourself dealing with an angry dying person, here are five tips to help you help them.

  1. Maintain Adult-Adult Relationships: It’s often easy to treat a sick person like a child; it’s in human nature to care for and infantilize the sick. When you fall into this pattern, what was once an adult-adult relationship becomes one of adult-child. Treating a dying adult as you would a child is likely to backfire and increase the anger a dying person is already feeling. You may have fallen into this pattern without even realizing it, and you will likely see anger directed at you for doing so. It is frustrating and humiliating enough to lose your independence and privacy without being treated like a child. A dying person typically wants to remain in control of themselves, their life, and their decisions for as long as possible. Empowering a dying person to make their own decisions, express their feelings, and remain as independent as possible is an important way to help them move through their anger.
  2. Don’t Take it Personally: Angry people sometimes look for someone to blame. When the anger is directed at you, it’s difficult not to take it personally and wonder, what did I do wrong? It’s important to remember that the dying person is not angry at you, but at the illness and their situation in general. Although their anger might be directed towards you, it is not by any fault of your own.
  3. See It From Their Point of View: While it’s impossible to know exactly how another person is feeling, trying to see things from their point of view can help you understand why they are acting a certain way. Think about the dying person’s life—everyone they love, the activities they enjoys, the work they did, the dreams they have for the future—and imagine being robbed of all that life holds for you. Looking at it from this way, it’s no wonder that they are angry. They stand to lose everyone and everything that has ever meant anything to them. Remember also that oftentimes the underlying basis of the anger is really fear—fear of the unknown or of future physical pain among other things. Really listening to those concerns and encouraging a loved one to discuss them with their health provider to address and perhaps ameliorate some of the fears.
  4. Go Ahead and Get Mad...at the Illness Itself: Understanding where a dying person's anger is coming from helps you realize that their anger is justified. Redirecting anger towards the illness can help the dying person cope with their feelings. It might be helpful to be angry with the dying person's true target. After all, you stand to lose something as well. Go ahead and get mad at the illness.
  5. Understand Righteous Anger: A dying person may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or shocked after an emotional outburst. They may say something like, “I can’t believe I just said that. That’s not like me at all.” You might be thinking the same thing. Realizing and accepting that anger is normal and okay can help a dying person embrace and move through the anger stage of the dying process. Talking about righteous anger together and sharing in the discovery of feelings of loss can reduce suffering.
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