Anger is one of the five stages of grief, according to a famous model of grief developed by the Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying.
Although the Kübler-Ross model (also known as the five stages of grief model) was developed as a way to support terminally ill people facing their imminent death, other types of mental health practitioners found it so useful, the model was adapted as a way of thinking about grief in general.
The five stages of grief as outlined by Kübler-Ross are:
This article focuses on the anger stage of grief – what it is, why it happens, and how to manage it. You can find articles on the other four stages of grief elsewhere on the site.
What is anger?
Anger is a strong, typically uncomfortable, emotion that varies in intensity from mild irritation or annoyance to fury and rage. Despite this, it’s a normal, natural, and healthy human emotion, experienced by virtually everyone in some form and at some point.
Anger can be a challenging emotion because it is easily expressed in ways that are unpredictable, impulsive, anti-social, obnoxious, aggressive, or even dangerous. For this reason, it’s one of the less socially acceptable emotions. When it’s not expressed, anger might be repressed, which can have ramifications of its own as these deep feelings remain unprocessed and can emerge in other ways. Societally, we rarely acknowledge anger’s place as a normal, human emotion and fail to teach helpful methods for expressing anger in healthy ways.
Anger can also show in our facial expressions or in our physical stance. It’s a very primal emotion that we understand on a deep, non-verbal level and is thought to have a role in survival. Sometimes described as a “full-contact emotion”, anger activates our nervous system. This means we experience the physical effects of anger, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is activation of our stress response – sometimes called the “fight or flight” response or “seeing red,” which switches off the thinking part of our brain. When we are in this activated state, it can be hard to manage our actions from a place of respect, sensitivity or compassion, which is why anger can cause us to behave in ways we do not recognize, leaving us feeling shameful, guilty, or embarrassed afterwards.
What does anger have to do with grief?
Anger is a less predictable but relatively common response to grief. It can take different forms, including anger directed at the deceased for leaving you or anger that you couldn’t prevent the death of your loved one. You may also feel angry the initial loss has also triggered other losses, often making up a key part of your identity, such as your relationship status, home, or job.
Physiologically, our brain secretes a hormone called norepinephrine during anger arousal, which has an analgesic effect. In other words, our brain makes its own painkiller whenever we get angry, designed specifically to numb our pain. This is one possible explanation as to why anger is one of the five stages of grief – it can actually soothe those hurt feelings, comforting and reassuring us in times of danger.
According to one study, anger is the most essential stage of grief. Researchers named their study “Anger: the hidden part of grief” for good reason:
Anger, under any circumstances, is difficult to experience and understand. When associated with grief, anger seems startling and somewhat inappropriate. Yet the failure to recognize and the inability to work with angry feelings may compromise and inhibit the necessary grieving process. If not confronted directly, anger emerges in a variety of disguises such as disabling illness, maladaptive behavior, and chronic unhappiness. – M S Cerney & J R Buskirk
Anger can be thought of as a defense mechanism when it comes to grief. By directing your strong feelings elsewhere, usually outwards, they become easier to dispel.
Psychotherapist Michael C. Graham defines anger in terms of our expectations and assumptions about the world. He says that anger almost always results when we are caught up “expecting the world to be different than it is”. When we are grieving the loss of a loved one or a future we expected to be able to live, anger can be an expression of the ways in which we want a different outcome, regardless of how futile it might be.
What is the anger stage of grief?
According to the American Psychological Association, the anger stage of grief is “the second of the five stages of grief described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It is characterized by anger, resentment, or even rage at one’s own (or at an important other’s) impending or actual death, other great loss, or trauma.”
Feelings of anger can surface after a death in several different ways. You may feel angry toward the person who has died, anger at yourself if you feel you should have done or not done certain things before they died. You might notice feelings of anger towards others, too, such as older people who have outlived your loved one.
Anger can also surface in ways that don’t seem to relate to people. Feeling angry at the world is common and can be a way to respond to strong feelings that life is cruel or unfair. Anger in all its forms is a natural emotion, particularly after someone has died, but it can feel shocking to experience, especially when it feels very strong or overwhelming.
What does the anger stage of grief look and feel like?
According to the University of Washington, the anger stage of grief can look like:
- Being aggressive or passive-aggressive
- Getting into arguments or physical fights
- Increased alcohol or drug use
It can feel like:
- Feeling out of control
How to cope with the anger stage of grief
First off, admit you’re angry. It is impossible to work through an emotion when you pretend it doesn’t exist.
When difficult emotions like anger arise, try not to suppress or avoid them. Emotions are designed to rise up and be felt before they can transform into something else. Suppressing your anger might cause it to come out in less desirable ways, but by allowing yourself space to feel angry, you can address it before it escalates to outward aggression.
Allow yourself to feel your loss. Sit with the feeling if you can. If you have a supportive friend you can lean on or another emotionally safe place, spend time letting yourself have your feelings, think about the person you’ve lost, allow yourself to talk about them, and/or cry if you feel tears coming up.
If you’re struggling with your anger, there are other ways to express your emotions in non-verbal ways. Letting your feelings out through art, craft, journaling, poetry, or creative writing are all healthy ways to express your anger.
Dismiss self-criticism and invite in some compassion. Be patient. When held gently and supportively, anger often shifts to overwhelm, fear or sadness – wait awhile and see what you’re really dealing with. It’s important to identify and address the root cause of your feelings.
If that feels too hard, try practicing mindfulness. When angry feelings or thoughts arise, observe and acknowledge them honestly. Set some distance between you and those thoughts. After all, you are not your thoughts.
While you may find yourself feeling frightened or shocked by the anger you’re feeling, vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown believes in its power:
Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. Or sometimes anger can mask a far more difficult emotion like grief, regret, or shame, and we need to use it to dig into what we’re really feeling. Either way, anger is a powerful catalyst but a life-sucking companion. – Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness
With this in mind, if you can find ways to recognize your anger, avoid repressing it, and even transform your anger into a more productive emotion, you are likely to move through this stage of grief successfully.
Does everyone go through all five stages of grief?
No. Some people only go through a couple, but not all, five stages. Some never get to a place of acceptance. Grief is a complicated, difficult and unique experience, with everyone reacting to it in their own way.
There are other models of grief that people find helpful – these are mentioned in our What are the five stages of grief after a significant loss? article.
Although it’s a cliché to say, time is a healer. For those in the initial stages of grief, there can be a desire to skip ahead to the future and to bypass the most painful aspects of grieving.
There isn’t a way to avoid feeling strong emotions during grief, however. Trying to resist grief can actually cause it to feel stronger and more relentless, so there is an element of giving yourself over to grief. Allow yourself plenty of time to grieve, try to accept that whatever is happening for you is unfolding in exactly the way it has to, and know that every day counts.
Grief has a very real way of keeping you in the present and the past. But looking ahead to the future can be a way to begin to accept what has happened and to move towards a new life without your loved one. Take it step by step so as not to overwhelm yourself.
What should I do if I cannot cope with my anger?
Help is out there for you if you feel you cannot cope with your grief or the ways in which you are coping are harmful. Equally, for some, grief can trigger a deep depression that can become entrenched.
Bereavement or grief counseling is available for those who need help in processing their loss. This type of therapy allows you to talk your feelings through with a professional who is experienced in this field and can allow you the time and space to talk about your loved one and the emotions you’re experiencing. Don’t suffer alone.
The Center • A Place for HOPE is an award-winning treatment facility with over 37 years of leadership in mental and behavioral health. We are a top ten facility for depression treatment, meaning that our caring and experienced staff are well placed to provide you with professional excellence in a range of different treatment options.
Please call during opening hours, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PT, Verify Insurance or complete the form below.
 Kübler-Ross, E. (2002) On death and dying ; questions and answers on death and dying; on Life after death. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.
 Charles D. Spielberger and Eric C. Reheiser, “Assessment of Emotions: Anxiety, Anger, Depression, and Curiosity.” Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 1: 271-302. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2009.01017.x.
 Nelly Alia-Klein, Gabriela Gan, Gadi Gilam, Jessica Bezek, Antonio Bruno, Thomas F. Denson, Talma Hendler, Leroy Lowe, et al., “The Feeling of Anger: From Brain Networks to Linguistic Expressions,” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 108 (2020):480-97. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev2019.12.002.
 Cerney MS, Buskirk JR. Anger: the hidden part of grief. Bull Menninger Clin. 1991 Spring;55(2):228-37. PMID: 2043899.
 Graham, Michael C. (2014). Facts of Life: ten issues of contentment. Outskirts Press. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-4787-2259-5.