A client once told me that his mother intentionally kept him from attending his grandfather’s funeral because she didn’t want him to see her cry. At eleven years of age, he felt old enough to be a part of this ritual, and certainly had feelings about it himself. The message of shame around the tears further complicated the expression of grief for the child. Was it okay for him to cry? What would his mother think? Did he need to protect her from his own sadness? When are tears okay?
Another client mentioned that in her very large family that she was the only one who shed tears upon learning of her very young niece’s death. In over thirty years of psychotherapeutic practice, I have had the privilege to bear witness to many types of reactions to numerous events. I understand the person who is numb and does not cry, or for whom an injury was so sustained and delivered by someone who s/he had thought was trustworthy, that the best defense was to create a sturdy (albeit brittle) crust. But I see it as my responsibility to encourage conversation when someone says, “I wanted to tell ___ about my illness, or that a relative had died etc, but I was afraid s/he would cry.”
In these types of instances, tears are not a conversation stopper but merely an expression of emotion. They are part of a dialogue. I have yet to see someone fill a room with tears, run out of tissues, or fell another human with excess salt. People do not crumble because of tears, so the need for protection around them is (unwittingly) fabricated, a fear but not a reality of what will happen. Yes, someone delivering difficult news may then have a response to how the receiver reacts. That is part of our lives that are laced with sadness, however frequent or infrequent. Avoiding it all together means that it rumbles around unexpressed, seeking outlet at often unexpected and inopportune times.
In the wake of the atrocities of the past weeks in our country tears are an appropriate response. Even when not our child or close relative, it is not a far stretch to feel the force of violent unexpected death so close at hand. The intense secondary trauma needs voice lest it be stifled and turn rancid inside.
It was not until I learned about the death of my friend’s beloved Golden Retriever that my own tears were unleashed, also bringing forth the anguish about the loss of human life. The protests are evidence that people feel strongly enough to speak out for those who cannot. So, too, tears demonstrate our very human connection to what we have experienced. It is one way that we show the depth of importance, the truth of meaning. At a time when people are hurting, seeking the comfort of contact with another, we don’t want to let a little bit of water to get in the way.
Tears do not need to manipulate, detour, influence, hijack or otherwise derail any discourse between people. They are merely a punctuation, evidence of the power of vulnerability and a marker of human interaction. They can act as a bridge between us; everyone understands the pain of tragedy. Let us be willing to accept the message of tears without adding the judgement about them which serves only to separate those in need from those who can learn from and be present with them.