Monday, July 6, 2009

Anger and Trauma: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

Imagine, if you can, that your husband and father of your children doesn't come home one night. He's done this before, and you hate it, but you live with it. He's not home the next day, either, which is a little strange and you're starting to get worried. Then, in the afternoon, the doorbell rings and a police officer tells you that your husband has been murdered. What would your first reaction be?

If you said, "disbelief," "that can't be true" or "how do you know?" you're probably right. The mind is amazingly good at protecting itself, and the sudden death of a loved one is something it needs to deal with a piece at a time. There are some messages we don't accept delivery on right away.

After you accepted the news, perhaps not completely but at least enough to consider it, you might well start asking, "How? Who did it? Where?" You are trying to make sense of something that makes no sense. You hope that the answers to those questions will help this event fit into some schema that already exists in your mind, so you can process it. The answers rarely help much, but we think they will.

Now imagine that the answer is he was shot, along with his mistress, in a condo he owned and she lived in. It may or may not have been a murder-suicide that she committed. Oh, and the police have a lot of questions for you. And your husband is a semi-public figure, and it's already all over the news. Now what is your reaction?

The Quarterback, for one, can't even imagine it. As much as I can imagine feeling disbelief at the death of my husband, I can't even process in the hypothetical the morass of emotions that would come flooding under these circumstances.

The murder of your spouse by itself is traumatic. Your spouse's affair by itself is emotionally devastating and makes you angry and hurt. Now try processing them at the same time. Who are you mad at?

Your husband seems an obvious choice, but he's dead and you are coping with that loss. It's hard to be mad at the dead, even though you are. He clearly shouldn't have been where he was, doing what he was doing, and he hurt you and got himself killed. But anger that can't be expressed because the person is dead is hard anger to hold, and many people can't do it.

Maybe you're mad at his mistress, but is it her fault? Or is it your husband's fault for being in that situation? The police officer? Don't shoot the messenger, no pun intended. The media? Sure, but that doesn't really capture it. God? Where does that leave you?

Paradoxically, when faced with situations where none of the people who seem obvious targets for your anger or blame are comfortable, many people turn those emotions in on themselves. People find the most amazing and convoluted reasons why things are their fault when they clearly aren't: If I had known. If I had been there. If I had made him stay home. If I had been a better wife. If I had insisted on counseling. If I had paid more attention to his whereabouts.

Even more frequently, the anger and trauma and grief all mingles together into a big jumble where nothing seems to fit. People jump from blaming themselves to anger at the victim to anger at others to sadness to hopelessness to powerlessness and back to blame. Is it any wonder that depression is a common aftereffect?

I hope nothing like this ever happens to you. Nothing like this should ever happen to anyone. And it shouldn't have happened to Mechelle McNair.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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