The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our anger is poisoning us. Here’s what I learned after my son died.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Our older son, Andrew Bauer, died mysteriously on Nov. 4, 2016. Four days later, on Nov. 8, Donald Trump was elected president. But by that time, I’d disappeared into the oblivion of grief.

Andrew was found unconscious on the floor of his apartment by building staff. He had not been ill, and there was no sign of injury. A seemingly healthy 28-year-old, he was dead by the time paramedics arrived.

The police were called. They treated Andrew’s death as suspicious, taking his body to be autopsied and securing his apartment. Someone notified my husband, John, at work. He burst through our door on a Friday morning and told me our son was gone.

It was an eerily warm, sunny fall. We spent days talking to detectives, the coroner’s office, organ donation people and a funeral home. Our daughter, who was serving with the Navy in the Middle East, flew home. Our younger son, Max — who had been closer to Andrew than anyone — moved back in with us, so shattered he could barely speak.

Everything felt unreal, like a bright nightmare. I recall being vaguely surprised as the CNN tickers tallied Donald Trump’s victory, but in the greater shock of our lives this barely registered. What was going on in the world felt like theater. It had nothing to do with us.

For weeks after the funeral, John, Max and I were cosseted, cared for by many wonderful people who brought us food and sat in our living room. Old and young, men and women, Democrats and Republicans. We didn’t keep count.

As winter set in, the detectives closed their case and the coroner’s office decided they did not know what caused our son’s death. We went traveling, anywhere we could find sun. John’s employer generously doubled, then tripled, his compassionate leave. Friends opened their homes to us and gave us soft beds. Our life was blessedly gentle for a while.

We returned home in spring, but it was midyear before we were fully conscious. And then it was awful. How dark, brutal and downright dystopian everything had become. We assumed it was us, our grief making the entire nation feel like an oily, evil place.

Driving had become war. We were sideswiped twice. A stately older lady in a Lexus cruised by me with a raised middle finger. Once I stopped fast to avoid hitting a bicyclist, and the driver behind me leaped out of his car, pounded on my trunk, then yanked my door open and threatened to hurt me. I sat stunned in my seat belt and listened to him scream.

It was possible, I reasoned, that I was just a worse driver now. My head was still fuzzy, and I’d have lapses of terror and sadness. But there were other troublesome signs.

In our urban neighborhood, where people from all backgrounds used to meet to talk in the alley, more than one 10-foot fence shot up. The local natural food co-op had divided into factions around some issue I couldn’t parse; people gathered, taunting each other outside the door. I eventually quit shopping there.

It was as if we went away to grieve and returned to a completely different, darker version of home. People around us were venting fury, 24/7, in person and online. Worse, they seemed to rejoice in each other’s pain — and I’m talking all sides. We live in a politically liberal area and work among creatives; our extended family skews conservative and suburban. It didn’t matter where we went or who we talked to. The experience was the same.

My yoga teacher became angry during one class and walked out. We saw a well-dressed couple rage at a teenage restaurant host.

And when did name-calling become a thing that grown-ups do? It was everywhere, the jabs at people’s body shape, skin color and intellect.

Yes, our lives — John’s and Max’s and mine — were shattered back in that early November. But so, in a way it seemed, everyone’s had been. We have entered a dark age.

There have been several essays lately celebrating anger, most of them written by privileged white women (like me). Anger, they seemed to suggest, is getting us somewhere.

But anger alone is not. We need to turn our anger into something positive rather than letting it leak into nearly every interaction, poisoning our ability to create anything new. That’s where the teenagers from Parkland, Fla. and their “March for Our Lives” are getting it right. They are angry, yes. But rather than simply raging and accusing, they are channeling their anger into purpose. They are doing, many of the students have said, what the adults around them refuse to do.

In Rohinton Mistry’s spectacular novel “A Fine Balance,” about the terror reign of Indira Gandhi (a leader who centralized power, encouraged class warfare and imprisoned the media in India), a student suggests that everyone in the country should get angry in order to force the politicians to behave.

“In theory, yes, I would agree with you,” says the philosopher at the center of the book. “But in practice it might lead to the onset of more major disasters. Just try to imagine six hundred million raging, howling, sobbing humans. . . . Chaos. Complete chaos.”

Take it from someone who awakened into this new age. The act of showering rage on strangers doesn’t move anything forward. The answer to neo-Nazi rage is not elite urban tantrums. Right now, chaos reigns.

I think back to that group who gathered in our living room on and off for weeks after Andrew died.

Many wonderful people — from across the political spectrum — converged to help us during that time. They worked together to care for us, talking with civility and empathy about events and movies and even politics. They were worried we would give in to rage and despair following Andrew’s death, so somehow, as a group, they held up a light.

I’m not so naive that I think asking people to behave the way they do at a funeral will solve the problems of the world. Yet there is value in knowing what’s possible. We were stretched with grief to a point where, I’m told, it looked as if we might just disappear. So those around us accommodated. They treated us with steady kindness, because we were frightened and mortal. But so, ultimately, is everyone.

Imagine if that were the goal: baseline civility and warm expectations. This doesn’t mean we stop standing up for what’s right or being outraged by injustice. It’s about speaking with respect, avoiding hate and generally being decent.

A sexist troll attacked Sarah Silverman. She responded by helping him with his problems.

It’s been 15 months since we lost Andrew, and I am often tempted to rage. But grief, in my case at least, is a strange advantage. I’m slow now . . . slow to think, slow to speak, slow to anger. I don’t have the energy for fury, my own or anyone’s.

Instead, I make what inroads I can for refugees and homeless people and gun control. I do that locally, in my community, because that’s where I have the most control. Then I seek out random sources of light and joy that I definitely would have scoffed at in my previous life. Tibetan chanting. British slapstick. Dark beer. Dogs. Young men who hold doors. Older people in coffee shops — I talk to them whether they agree with my opinions or not.

Be angry if you must, but be kind as well. The two are not mutually exclusive. Contribute a little joy to the world. It’s the only way I see out of this chaos we’re in.

Ann Bauer is a Minneapolis-based writer and author of the novel “Forgiveness 4 You”

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