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When grief becomes rage

Twice in the last few months I have encountered grief as rage.  Both were in the setting of the cardiac arrest of individuals who were already very ill.  One was aged, with severe, end-stage heart disease.  One was of middle age, but with metastatic cancer and on hospice.

In one instance, family members became angry because we did not leave the body in the ER for eight hours so that everyone could come and pay their respects.  (Which I always thought was the purpose of a funeral home.)  In another, a family was angry because we did not allow everyone back into the room during the resuscitation of their cancer-stricken loved one; a resuscitation the family insisted upon, and which required rescinding hospice status.  From observing their demeanor, their presence would have caused total chaos in the room.  And I say that as someone who doesn’t mind family watching me work a cardiac arrest!

In both situations, there were screams and threats.  One woman said, ‘you bring the supervisor to me and I’ll mess her up!’  In another, an angry (intoxicated) son paced, clenched his fist, shouted and said, ‘I’ll show you something, yes I will.’

In the hospice case, the dear hospice nurse had spent the entire day with her patient as drunk family members actually threw things at her (to the dismay and disappointment of the dying).

I understand grief.  I get it.  It’s overwhelming and painful.  We all want to help ease the transition of the family in their time of loss.  But when it transforms into physical threats, into rage directed at the staff of the hospital, then it crosses the line of propriety.

We have so abandoned manners, decorum, decency that some will doubtless opine that it’s not up to me to judge how someone feels grief.  Perhaps, but being threatened does not make me more sympathetic.  And feelings need not morph into violence, or the threat of it.

Most tragically, however, this behavior by adult children entirely dishonors the memory of the family they purport to love.  I would be cut to the quick if I thought my children were acting that way as I lay dying, or after I had died.

We have expectations as a society.  And one of them is that we do not, in our grief, threaten to harm those who have done their best to help.  It’s less than childish, it’s beastly.  And I will not allow myself, or my staff, to endure it any more.


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Linda Merck

2010-05-03 09:22:00 Reply

People have long forgotten, or were never taught, that their rights end where ours begin. This is an intangible space but to those who never seem to care about how they are perceived by other members of society, always seem to know where to theirs is, and violate ours.

Toni Brayer, MD

2010-05-08 10:32:35 Reply

I think you are excusing bad behavior and calling it “grief”. Drunken insults, threats and demands can never be excused in anyone over the age of five. I suspect these people exhibit the same types of behavior in all aspects of their lives, no grief needed!!

What they lack is personal accountability and responsibility toward others. It is a lifestyle..not a grief event.

Good post.


    2010-05-08 12:31:28 Reply


    You’re right! It isn’t actually grief; we all know and respect grief. This is just an outpouring of the same underlying behavior, unleashed under the guise, or trigger, of grief. I think sometimes it’s because that dead person was the only one who brought any order to the family unit, and suddenly havoc is unleashed!


2010-05-08 17:06:38 Reply

Thanks for a great post. No one walks away satisfied.


2010-05-10 10:23:04 Reply

We tell our 2 year old “It’s ok to be” angry/sad/disappointed/etc “but not ok to” scream/hit someone/throw things. “We’ll address this a better way.” Sounds like some of these folks need the same training.


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