Skip to main content

Dealing With People Whose Anger Is Misdirected Grief

Carola is a mental health advocate and a freelance writer who focuses on mental health, mental illness, and cognitive conditions.

People who are grieving the death of a loved one may misdirect their anger from the loss at us.

People who are grieving the death of a loved one may misdirect their anger from the loss at us.

Different Ways of Grieving

When my mother died many years ago, it was the first death I experienced of someone close to me. Mom had moved cross country to live with my husband, daughter, and me for the last few years of her life, so her passing grieved me deeply. I was totally unprepared for people’s reactions to the sad news. Suddenly, I was the target of rage from some of her hometown friends and others close to both of us.

One of my mother’s friends, Jane (not her real name) wrote me a scathing letter accusing me of exploiting my mother financially and not taking good care of her.
I was astonished at this allegation, especially as I had never met this woman. My mom had told Jane that she could not visit our hometown because she was paying us rent.

I recognized that this woman was lashing out at me out of her own grief. It gave her relief from her anguish to blame me for my mother’s death. My first reaction was to refute her claims and straighten her out. My mother did not visit our hometown because she did not feel physically up to it, not because we took her money. Mom was too proud to admit her weakness, so she made up this excuse.

The whole rent thing was my mother's idea. She did it so we could afford to buy a house where we could all live together. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Mom had the top floor to herself with 24 access to her three-year-old granddaughter and our support. She had plenty of money left and enjoyed treating herself and us to restaurants and entertainments she loved.

Other letters and faxes I received showed that my mother’s death had triggered deep feelings of resentment in others and, in some cases, jealousy. People accused me of not appreciating my mom, taking advantage of her financially, and being a spoiled princess.

How to Deal With People Who Are Angry and Grieving

Try To Understand Why They are Lashing Out

There are many reasons why people rage at us when they are grieving such as:

  • Missing a person who they loved and respected
  • Avoiding their grief and hurt
  • No longer having the hope of mending the relationships
  • The death leaves problems unresolved
  • Anger at God and the world for taking the loved one
  • Fear of the future because they lost someone who provided them with emotional and other kinds of support
  • Finding out that they are not getting what they were expecting in the deceased person’s will
  • Accusing us of being selfish when we did not share part of our inheritance with them
  • Feeling that our actions after the death were unfair

It may be too painful for them to deal with their emotions, so they resort to venting to other people. Sometimes, a loss can trigger old resentments and jealousies. Others may have more selfish motives. They may envy us for the inheritance that they wanted, but we got. They may evade their grief by blaming others for the death-like Jane blamed me.

Wait Until the Appropriate Time to Address Issues

Some issues need immediate responses but it is often better to wait. Everyone goes through many difficult emotions when someone they care about passes away. This period is often not the right time to address or solve issues. Instead, we can offer our love and comfort during the grieving period. We may want to clear up misunderstandings in the future when we can do so in a calm, rational manner.

In the meantime, we can provide an example of calm in the center of the storm. We should treat wrathful people with kindness and understanding. Doing so can help them to de-escalate and rethink what they were doing.

Decide How We Will Respond

I decided not to respond to Jane’s letter. I had already expressed my condolences when I phoned her and informed her about my mother's passing. Telling Jane that my mother lied to her would hurt her even more and make her angrier. No good could come from me trying to defend myself. I knew a little about Jane from my mother, but I had no context from which I could offer comfort or support.

If we are confronted, we can ask them directly why they are so angry with us. We could say something like: "What have I done to deserve this?” This may give them pause to think twice about their attitude. A confrontation may open a dialogue that helps the grieving person to express their feelings.

Hopefully, our responses can help them calm down and give them comfort. If explanations are needed, and misunderstandings need to be addressed, we may need to patiently wait until they are ready to listen before taking steps to mend relationships.

Set Boundaries

Boundaries help protect us from harm and set consequences for harmful behavior. Grieving is not an excuse for verbal battery. No one has the right to abuse and degrade us. We have the right to question what they are doing and enforce consequences for breaking our rules. We may need to cut off toxic relationships to protect ourselves.

Sadly, in the case of the woman who wanted to invade my house, this matter was never resolved. She became so verbally abusive that I had to sever the relationship. However, if she reaches out to me in the future, respects my boundaries, and shows a different attitude, I would be open to reconsidering re-establishing a relationship.

Do Not Get Defensive

My first reaction to Jane’s letter was hurt and righteous indignation. I wanted to clear up misinformation and explain myself. However, I sensed that Jane was not ready to hear me. She probably would have responded with an even harsher attack on me if I had contacted her. I felt she would accuse me of lying if I told her the truth.

Fulfill Reasonable Requests

I inherited all of my mother’s possessions—easy enough because they were already in our house. I feel the inheritance was fair. My mother was generous with the people close to her and ensured they got everything she wanted them to have during her lifetime.

That being said, I did not mind fulfilling requests from the people involved. Someone asked for old photos my mother had kept, so I sent them on. I faxed a copy of my mom’s will to someone who doubted my inheritance. However, I was taken aback when one woman demanded that I open my door to her and allow her to rifle through my mom’s things for mementos.

There I was, facing huge piles of my mother’s boxes full of useless paper and valuables. My mother had hoarding tendencies. It would take months to go through all the stuff. Some things had sentimental rather than monetary value. Most of it was useless junk.

I put my foot down and said: “no.” The woman responded by spewing a lot of the resentment, grudges, and jealousy she felt towards me through the years.

Fulfilling requests can be a kind thing to do, but there are limits. Sometimes we need to turn them down and set clear boundaries about their future behavior.

Suggest They Seek Support

We can point out their anger in a gentle, non-judgmental way, and suggest they seek support from friends and loved ones, counseling, or mental health services.

Closing Thoughts

When we lose someone we care about, we may be the target of other people’s wrath. We need to diffuse this anger if we can and reach out to them with empathy and concern. We may have to set and enforce boundaries to keep ourselves free from the harm their bad behavior could cause. Hopefully, everyone will calm down and re-establish relationships over time.

References:

Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one, American Psychological Association
Bereavement And Grief, Mental Health America
Mourning and the 5 Stages of Grief, PsychCentral, Sandra Silva Casabianca
Helping Someone Who’s Grieving, helpguide.org
How to Handle Other People’s Anger Like a Pro, Nick Wignall

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Carola Finch