How to Deal With Anger and Grief While Keeping Your Composure
There were two emotions that older families watched closely for the temptation they posed to self-indulgence: anger and grief. Such was the sensitivity about these emotions that they were kept strictly private and personal. Any public display of either was taken to indicate not mere bad form or an unfortunate lack of breeding, but weakness of character.
In all fairness, the elders did not enforce observance of any code, but all the same they earned the respect and admiration, if not exactly emulation, of the generations after them for their extraordinary sense of self-restraint. Instructed by the experience of another time, my own generation has found the practice impractical and thus formulated its own standards, without necessarily chucking all of the old.
Family wakes are kept brief, so that grief is not dwelt upon longer than necessary, a practice straight out of the wisdom of the elders: One has to move on. Some of my own relations would still ask non-family to leave them to their grief at the point of actual interment as a concession not so much to tradition as to a naturally felt need for privacy.
I myself followed family tradition for the wake for my mother, but only in its shortness and simplicity. Mom’s was my first such personal loss. The wake lasted only three nights, which may have proved inadequate: Even at eighty-five, she had died unexpectedly, in her sleep and not after any lingering illness, and many of her friends didn’t learn of her passing in time to be able to make it to either the wake or the funeral. Those who knew came every night, measuring up to Mom’s own standard of true friendship.
Instead of solitary privacy, I sought solace and found it in relatives and friends, especially those who had themselves gone through the same experience. In fact, it was at the burial that I found I needed them most.
Managed properly, grief indeed provides an opportunity to bring out the best in us.
Mom rarely missed funerals herself. Always naturally well-dressed, she went in her finest “out of respect”—she always made the point—for the departed. She sometimes even demanded that I upgrade my own outfit when I accompanied her. Indeed, a young aunt on Dad’s Reyes side, Zenaida, who was very close and sensitive to Mom, made sure I was suitably dressed for my own mother’s funeral. She sent an elegant white satin blouse for me to wear.
These days meals and snacks are provided continuously at wakes to encourage conviviality and thus ease the heaviness of the occasion. In the past, food was provided only on the last night, the eve of the burial.
Some people advise condolers not to ask the bereaved about the circumstances of the death and have them repeat the story again and again. I had not objected to that until it was my turn to be asked. I discovered that the telling and retelling helped me to accept the reality and permanence of my loss. After that, I needed only my husband’s shoulder, my daughter’s hand and a son’s kiss on the top of my head to ease the residual pain.
In the final analysis, there being no hard and fast rules for the delicate occasion, all that is naturally expected of a condoler is to respect the wishes and sensitivities of the bereaved. In the circumstances, lapses in decorum should be easy to overlook although awkward situations can still arise.
I will never forget the wake for my cousin Rocio, the youngest child of Tito Chino. A buzz suddenly went around the chapel: Imelda Marcos, half of the ruling dictatorship that had put Tito Chino in jail and continued to keep him under house arrest, had arrived uninvited and unannounced. She stood alone at the entrance, all in black.
“You have to hand it to her,” Dad whispered to me. “She’s braving the lions’ den!”
The den was packed with not only relatives but also political oppositionists. A commotion arose as some lions left the room. The rest of us remained and waited with bated breath for a cue from Tito Chino, who was supposed to have been put, on Imelda’s very orders, through worse humiliation than any of his fellow prisoners. Without hesitation, he stood up to fetch her and escorted her for a viewing of his only daughter’s remains. Imelda and Chino thus transcended their differences for a touching moment of simple civility. Managed properly, grief indeed provides an opportunity to bring out the best in us.
Anger, if at all, should be directed at the one who truly deserves it, a point almost always lost in the passion of the moment.
Anger is comparable, and I learned my lessons about that from my own gentle and soft-spoken father. He was seated beside me at dinner in my own home when an occasion presented itself: My maid had done something in breach of everything I had taught her. I was about to explode when he tugged at my arm and said, “Later”. His look was enough to remind me of his relevant philosophy: Anger, if at all, should be directed at the one who truly deserves it, a point almost always lost in the passion of the moment. And nothing disgusted Dad more than a public display of anger toward a subordinate.
“Is that worth your anger?” he would ask me every time he sensed it building up in me.
And how could I forget anger’s fatal power over the very one who harbors it? That was the exact case of a matron who suffered a heart attack, and died instantly, while lashing out at a maid who had plugged a brand-new appliance in the wrong outlet.
To my dad’s generation, succumbing to anger, as to grief, meant losing control, not unlike the breakdown of parental authority upon meting out physical punishment to a child. He put a value on his anger so high that no one seemed worthy at all of receiving it. In fact, I cannot recall a time when he allowed his anger to betray him.
“You’re really just angry at yourself,” he would say, proceeding while laughing to make his larger point: “Now, if it’s you yourself who’s worth your own anger, why get angry at all?” It could well be the secret of his happy, healthy longevity—he turned ninety-two on September 28.
By some ability, Dad has faced life’s challenges armed with such homegrown philosophies and sense of humor. The trick, he says, is not to take things personally. “They hardly ever are, kiddo,” he’d tell me.
Come to think of it, the maid’s faux pas wasn’t “personal” but I took it as an embarrassment for me because it made me look like a poor trainer. When “later” came, as Dad had advised, I had already lightened up, thus able to deal with my maid properly, sparing us both the pain and humiliation that invariably result from an uncontrolled explosion of anger.
Bebe, a friend from my own generation who could explode in anger as easily as she could burst into laughter, had her own theory: Expressing anger is healthy. She in fact blamed my then-chronic stomach and asthma problems on anger suppressed, and instructed me on how to deal with it healthily.
“Repeat after me,” she said, and proceeded, with me following along, to shout a vocabulary of curse words in three languages with the vocal force called for. The exercise brought us to hysterical laughter. At any rate, I couldn’t subscribe to her extreme theory. I’m not so much for suppressing anger as for controlling it, managing it. Bebe herself died two years ago, at sixty-six, of unsuppressed smoking.
Cousin Sylvia, whom I grew up with and never saw lose her temper in all those years, has told me how, recently provoked to anger, she happened to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror in that state.
“I never imagined I could look so ugly,” she said. Since then a recollection of that mirror image has kept her in better control.
*This story was originally published in the October 2009 issue of Town&Country Philippines