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Coping With a Dying Loved One's Anger

DABDA Stage of Anger and Death

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Updated October 20, 2009

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Anger is one of the stages of DABDA, a theory of coping with dying made popular by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Kubler-Ross theorized that people often go through predictable stages when they are coping with inevitable death: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Not everyone goes through every stage, and certainly not always in order, but most dying people will experience a stage of anger and resentment.

Anger is a normal reaction to severe loss. A dying person stands to lose everything and everybody that is important to him. He feels robbed by his illness. If he believes in a higher power, he may blame his God for causing his illness or not curing it. He might even resent his family and friends for continuing to live their lives while he slowly loses his own. He may feel that the doctor isn’t being straight with him, his nurses don’t respond to his demands quickly enough, and that the world has already started to forget him.

Anger is easily projected onto those around us, so it’s only natural if your loved one’s anger has befallen you. If you find yourself dealing with an angry dying person, here are five tips to help you help them.

5 Tips to Deal With Anger

  1. Maintain Adult-Adult Relationships

    It’s often easy to treat a sick person like a child; it’s in our nature to care for and dote over the sick. When we fall into this pattern, what was once an adult-adult relationship becomes one of adult-child. Treating a dying adult as we would a child is likely to backfire and increase the anger a dying person is already feeling. You may have fallen into this pattern without even realizing it, and you will likely see anger directed at you for doing so.

    It is frustrating and humiliating enough to lose your independence and privacy without being treated like a child. A dying person typically wants to remain in control of themselves, their life, and their decisions for as long as possible. Empowering a dying person to make their own decisions, express their feelings, and remain as independent as possible is an important way to help them move through their anger.

  2. Don’t Take it Personally

    Angry people typically look for someone to blame. When the anger is directed at you, it’s difficult not to take it personally and wonder, “What did I do wrong?” It’s important to remember that the dying person is not angry at you, but at the illness and his situation in general. Although his anger might be directed towards you, it is not by any fault of your own.

  3. See It From Their Point of View

    While it’s impossible to know exactly how another person is feeling, trying to see things from their point of view can help you understand why they are acting a certain way. Think about the dying person’s life -- everyone he loves, the activities he enjoys, the work he did, the dreams he has for the future -- and imagine how being told he is dying would affect those aspects of his life. Looking at it from this way, it’s no wonder that he is angry! He stands to lose everyone and everything that has ever meant anything to him.

  4. Go Ahead and Get Mad... At the Illness Itself

    Understanding where a dying person's anger is coming from helps us realize that his anger is justified. Redirecting anger towards the illness can help the dying person cope with their feelings. It might be helpful to be angry WITH the dying person. After all, you stand to lose something as well. Go ahead and get mad... at the illness.

  5. Understand “Righteous Anger”

    A dying person may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or shocked after an emotional outburst. He may say something like, “I can’t believe I just did/said that. That’s not like me at all!” Truth be told, you might be thinking the same thing. Realizing and accepting that anger is normal and okay can help a dying person embrace and move through the anger stage of the dying process. Talking about righteous anger together and sharing in the discovery of feelings of loss can reduce suffering.

The Five Stages of Grief: DABDA Theory of Coping with Death

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ DABDA Theory

Stage 1: Denial

Stage 2: Anger

Stage 3: Bargaining

Stage 4: Depression

Stage 5: Acceptance

Sources:

Housten R.E. “The Angry Dying Patient.” The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 1999 February; 1(1): 5-8.

Kubler-Ross E. On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Macmillan. 1969.

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