This is what I’ve heard after a loved one’s death:
“I can’t stop crying since __________ died.”
“I haven’t shed a tear since __________ died.”
We cry. We refuse to cry. We can’t seem to cry. We fight not to cry. We apologize for crying. We resent it when others seem to easily cry. We criticize ourselves for crying at the wrong time or place, with the wrong person or when others are watching.
We are weak.
Everyone else is strong.
Research suggests there are three kinds of tears: basal, reflex and emotional. The basal tears keep eyes lubricated. Indeed, most of us are “crying” most of the time. In an article posted on the website How Stuff Works, Alia Hoyt wrote:
(O)ne study collected both reflex tears and emotional tears (after peeling an onion and watching a sad movie, respectively). When scientists analyzed the content of the tears, they found each type was very different. Reflex tears are generally found to be about 98 percent water, whereas several chemicals are commonly present in emotional tears. First is a protein called prolactin, which is also known to control breast milk production. Adrenocorticotropic hormones are also common and indicate high stress levels. The other chemical found in emotional tears is leucine-enkephalin, an endorphin that reduces pain and works to improve mood.
When a man weeps in modern American society, reactions from others can represent extremes. Some might applaud him for revealing emotions and others directly or indirectly would belittle him for “not acting like a man.” Real men don’t cry after all. However, women are expected to cry—at sad movies, their child’s first steps, when a friend shares a difficult story . . .
I never cried when my father died. Because of his years-long dementia, the strongest feeling was relief on the chilly February day my sister called with the news. During Dad’s final years, when delusions, anger and stubbornness were the benchmarks of his glacial decline, I may have shed a few tears for my caretaker mother, but other reactions dominated. I was frustrated, but didn’t cry. I felt powerless, but didn’t cry. I privately ranted, but didn’t cry. The man that once could talk with anyone eventually wouldn’t smile, didn’t ask questions, and couldn’t recognize the woman tenderly caring for him as his wife. Thankfully, my father drew his last breath.
No tears. Not then. With the passage of seasons tumbling by, the demented years dim and the lifetime treasure of memories brighten. Since Dad’s dry-eyed death, I’ve had healing tears, along with shared laughter, stories, and smiles.
Mom’s August 2013 death occurred eighteen months following Dad’s final day. Four tumultuous weeks after her cancer diagnosis, her life also ended. Because of decisions made and unmade, and the wrenching pain following major surgeries, I frequently cried during her month of dying. I recall leaning across her hospital bed, promising that I’d make sure her wishes for her grandchildren were carried out . . . but couldn’t manage a coherent sentence while gasping and weeping. Now, years after Mom’s death, I am grateful for the flowing, liquid endorphins of emotional tears that (maybe) helped reduce my pain and (maybe) improved my mood in the sterile hospital rooms.
Was the absence of tears for Dad normal?
And were the unremitting tears for Mom normal?
+ + +
What has been your experience
and the crying
or lack of crying
As with much of grief, there is no normal. But I believe tears help. I think the presence or absence of tears reveals a story that only the one who weeps, or doesn’t weep, may fully understand. That word “may” is essential. Not all tears can or should be immediately analyzed for an obvious answer. It may be days or years later that someone better senses why they cried. A writer I admire, Frederick Buechner, implored everyone to listen to the story of their lives. Remember the joy, the echo of laughter. Remember the wounds, the flow of tears. Paying attention to the past is part of building a path toward the future.
I would hope, as you observe another crying, that you would not turn away, and that you would not judge the amount of tears. And if you are the one weeping (or not weeping), I hope at some point, you’ll let the tears/lack of tears help you claim essential memories (the good and the bad ones) and you’ll let your crying/not crying help you seek your deepest needs.
Tears, those peculiarly human emotional tears, can be a gift. Tears are a baptism, a cleansing, a bath, a swim on a hot summer day, a healing walk along a beach.
They are liquid lessons, inviting us see the ones we love, and our own selves, even as they cloud our eyes.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by