I often hear people qualify their days after experiencing a death or other loss as good or bad based on whether or not they cried with the crying days being the “bad” ones. I don’t look at it that way. I see crying a good and positive thing and a healthy person’s response to emotional pain as well as a necessary part of the grieving process*.
I once heard the spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson say (I am paraphrasing) that if you have 17 tears to cry and you only cry 10 of them, you have 7 tears that you are holding onto and they will become toxic. The chemical make-up of tears verifies this. Emotional tears actually have a different chemical structure than reflexive tears (tears produced by eye irritation) and that emotional “tears appear to play a significant role in detoxification of the body and enhancement of mental well-being” (Fooladi, 2005, p.250). In addition, emotional crying can produce endorphins to actually relieve the pain we’re suffering.
I know people who come to me years after a death to work on their grief and I think about all the un-cried tears that have contributed to their carried pain. We think that something is wrong with us when we cry – we want to stop it – cut it off – get over it – move on with life – etc. When we do that, we are asking ourselves to not be human. Crying as a response to sadness is actually a gift that we have because it is almost exclusively a human trait.
Another reason we hold the tears back is that we think that if we start we won’t stop. I know it’s hard to believe, but your tears have a beginning and they do have an end. Crying helps us express the pain and what we don’t express, we will repress. That repression may delay healing and interfere with adaptation of the loss, meaning making and continuing the bond with our loved ones who have died. Crying also signals empathetic responses in others which can enable us to receive connection and comfort. It is a way of asking for love and support without words.
Granted, whether alone or in the presence of a safe and trusted person, it is no picnic. It hurts. It’s messy. It reveals our vulnerability. For many of us, being that raw and vulnerable can be very difficult and can feel out of control, intimidating, uncomfortable and/or foreign. Paradoxically, I see crying as a signal of strength. I don’t like it either, but I get through it with the knowledge that on the other side is healing and growth. For me, it is a small price to pay for love.
(*A note: There are some cultures who do not view emotional crying as an appropriate response to emotional pain and have not been socialized to react to emotional pain with tears. Many people in our culture also may feel that crying is not appropriate for them either. This article is written to give those who need or want to cry as a result of emotional pain (or who are crying, but wish not to be) the permission and encouragement to do so. It is in no way suggesting that all people need to react to emotional pain with tears if that is not their authentic response. If you know someone who isn’t crying, but you think they should be crying, that is YOUR issue and not theirs. They are just having a different response to grief than yours.)
Fooladi, Marjaneh. (2005). The Healing Effects of Crying. Holistic Nursing Practice, 19(6), 248-255.