How People Grieve – Tears

After shock comes tears, the need to express sorrow. There are strong taboos against “breaking down” and crying. Far from breaking us down, tears can build us back up. “Breaking down” is more likely a result of not crying. Tear ducts are safety valves. Tear ducts are not for looking at (we can’t see them); they’re for using. They are not decorative; they’re functional. Many don’t use their tear ducts; many more, especially older men, can’t. Why not?

Little Bobbie’s fall on the pavement scared him. He began to wail. “Hey, come on, Bobbie,” his mother said, “you’re not even hurt.” Bobbie heard the undercover message: “Don’t cry unless you’re physically hurt.” Years later after basketball practice the assistant coach cut blisters off Bobbie’s feet. Bobbie said it only “stung a little.” He didn’t cry.

Years later when Bob and Joan had their first baby, he was so proud and happy he wanted to cry but he didn’t. (When would be a more appropriate time to cry for joy?) When Bob’s dad died, Bob didn’t…and now couldn’t…cry. He had learned not to.

It takes energy to bottle up emotions–energy robbed from every day activities. Lynn Caine, author of Widow, describes this lack of energy.

When that protective fog of numbness had finally dissipated, life became truly terrifying. I was full of grief, choked with unshed tears, overwhelmed by the responsibility of bringing up two children alone, panicked about my financial situation, almost immobilized by the stomach-wrenching, head-splitting pain of realizing that I was alone. My psychic pain was such that putting a load of dirty clothes in the washing machine, taking out the vacuum cleaner, making up a grocery list, all the utterly routine household chores, loomed like Herculean labors.

Holding back emotions is dangerous. Dr. Eric Lindemann, writing in a classic article for the American Journal of Psychiatry wrote, “If a widow tries to avoid the intense distress connected with the grief experience, the grief work will not get done. Severe psychiatric problems can result. She needs to talk, to cry, to work it out.”

The advice, “Go ahead and cry–it’s good for you,” is good. It isn’t absolutely necessary to cry, but it sure can help. Some people can and do cope without crying. Humans are more than just rational; they are also emotional. To deny human emotions is to be less than human. To imagine yourself without emotion is false and harmful. Lack of emotions is in itself a loss. Some people are afraid to “let down.” There is no truth to the belief that crying during grief may make you lose your mind. On the contrary, crying may help you keep it!

Holding back tears, like trying to keep a cork under water, takes energy. The bigger the cork, the harder it is to hold down–especially when you’re already holding down a lot of little corks. When you hold down big tears, the little tears threaten to well up over the “littlest” things. Let tears out. If you are embarrassed by your tears, find a private place and cry. (It may be appropriate for you to let your grief express itself now. Take the time if you need it.) Remember: grief is a healing process to work through, not a disease to avoid.

When feelings are buried, they’re buried alive and they come back to haunt…and you have little control over their untimely appearances.