Anger is a normal but unsettling emotion in grief. How one bereaved father is trying to wade through it.

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This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.

Part 12 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began

The first sign I’ve been repressing a big chunk of anger towards my son since his suicide last September was the journal entry that started with, “Oh Josh, you fucker.”

The second sign? The improvement in my mental state since I typed that entry a week ago.

Anger makes me uncomfortable. My mom was occasionally explosive and frightening in her wrath when I was growing up. Since her death in 1985, I’ve learned enough about her parents and stepparents to realize she was a victim of abandonment and probably abuse. This made it easier to forgive her, but my psychological scars remained.

There were times when my own anger erupted like Vesuvius. Yes, generational trauma is real, but I’ve still had to take responsibility for my own harmful behavior and better myself. As a fundamentalist parent in my kids’ early years, I rationalized corporal punishment by citing “spare the rod, spoil the child.” (I’ve since apologized to my kids.) Even afterward, I was capable of verbal tirades that were too all-encompassing and lengthy.

All that to say, anger scares me. And when my subconscious pokes me with anger towards my dead child, I want to run.

But emotions are always faster than our psychological defenses. It’s best to acknowledge and cope with them consciously.

These past two weeks are a perfect illustration. A higher-than-usual wave of sadness left me sputtering and coughing out water. My head felt fuzzy. Numbness was more predominant. My distress felt just short of unbearable for one awful evening. I was crying more on daily dog walks. Social interaction was overwhelming.

Recognizing my anger and talking it through with my therapist have reduced the wave to its regular height. When I told my therapist I was going to be writing this column, she suggested a better title would be “do I give myself permission to feel anger towards my son?” Too many words, but more accurate.

I’m not alone with my distemper. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the pioneer in death and dying studies, listed anger as one of the five stages of grief. I need to add the usual caveat when mentioning Kübler-Ross. Her stages are descriptive, not prescriptive. You’re not doing grief wrong if you don’t pass through every stage. They’re not a stepwise order to follow.

I have legitimate reasons to feel angry. Josh’s suicide did not just create one victim. He chose a passive method that left someone else to do the killing, helplessly and unwittingly. (That’s as much as I’ll say on his method. I don’t want to spawn any imitators.) It pains me to think Josh may have inflicted PTSD on his “killer” and on the police working his death scene.

Suicide leaves many survivors. One study cited in Jordan and McIntosh’s Grief After Suicide suggests that each self-murder creates 425 survivors. That’s horrifying. Due to suicide’s contagion effect, each survivor is more vulnerable to seeing that method as an acceptable exit. In Josh’s case, this especially applies to his family, and to peers who knew him and also suffer from mental illness. Though I feel guilt for that by proximity, I know intellectually that I’m not responsible.

One study suggests that each self-murder creates 425 survivors. Due to suicide’s contagion effect, each is more vulnerable to seeing that method as an acceptable exit.

I won’t speak for Josh’s brother and sister, but the day-to-day life for my wife Jessica and me is irrevocably changed. Our mostly content lives have been torched, devoured, and shat on the roadside. Jessica is in therapy, irritable, fending off depression, struggling with her workload like never before. For both of us, any true joy or belly laughs are brief and carry an undercurrent of sadness.

Besides my emotional tumult, amply documented in these columns, I’m battling new physical problems. If I quaff a beer or indulge in one delectably rich sweet, I carry stomach pain the following day. My primary care doc is worried enough about a bleeding ulcer (I’m also newly anemic) or acid eroding into my esophagus, that I’m getting my first upper endoscopy later this month.

In short, Josh took his emotional distress and spread it far and wide. Jessica and I will never be the same, and it emphatically is not a change for the better. Can I be angry?

Josh took his emotional distress and spread it far and wide.

In addition, it’s natural to absorb suicide as a violent personal rejection—in Josh’s case, a rejection of 20 years of love, investment into his wellbeing here and now, and towards his future. Of diaper changes, building Rube Goldberg railroad tracks and Mega Blok cities in our living room, taking him to school, listening to music together, attending high school band competitions. Of world travel, movie outings, beer trivia evenings, day trips. Of countless attempts at therapy and professional help.

Should I be mad at my son? Anger and forgiveness after suicide | Josh, building a railroad track around our resting dog
Building railroad tracks around resting dogs was a regular weekend activity with the kids. Photo by author

And how do we commonly react to rejection? With defensive anger.  

So, how do I cope? First, I acknowledge the uncomfortable emotions. Hi, anger, it’s just great to see you again!

I’m gonna feel what I’m gonna feel, but I don’t stop there. I challenge the validity of the thoughts lurking behind the emotion. I put Josh’s suicide into the context of his character, his whole life. Josh was not a selfish kid, he was sad and mentally ill. He didn’t take his life to hurt others, but to escape the pain and despair he suffered in that moment. He wasn’t rejecting me, he was rejecting a life that seemed unbearable.

Almost as quickly as I feel anger towards Josh, I forgive him, because I know, I fucking know, he didn’t act out of malice.

Here’s what I wrote near the conclusion of my journal entry: “Fuck mental illness. Fuck the youthful feeling of no way out. Fuck communication disorders. Fuck depression. I HATE THAT THEY DEFEATED YOU, beautiful wonderful you.”

At least for this week, this is how I’ve gotten through the anger, redirecting it toward the problems that defeated Josh, and returning to a clearer love for the boy I miss so deeply.

Should I be mad at my son? Anger and forgiveness after suicide | Closeup photo of sleeping sea lion
Sleeping sea lion in Astoria, Oregon. Photo by author
Lincoln Andrews

Lincoln Andrews

Life seemed as good as it gets in early 2021, with a happy family, a job I loved, and a long-desired move out of the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. My world split open on September 12th, when...