Monday, July 14, 2014

In Grief: When Tears Won’t Come

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Tears are the silent language of grief. ~Voltaire

A reader writes: My only sibling and big brother passed away six months ago, he was 30 years old. I used to be able to cry. I mean I would cry at work when things got stressful, and I would cry after fighting with friends, or cry if I were purely frustrated. My brother passes away and no tears. No tears at the funeral home. No tears at the hospital. No tears at the funeral. And no tears ... six months later.
I have gotten teary-eyed but all of a sudden have the ability to shut it off. I just feel numb. I always thought that if someone were to die in my family I would go insane and weep like a banshee. My brother dies suddenly and no tears. I do feel really bad and miss him so much, but I think I'm blocking out the fact that he's gone -- but not sure about that. I just find it strange that I won't cry ... I'm thinking that down the road when I'm older I'll end up having a nervous breakdown.

My response: It's interesting that you say you "won't cry" rather than that you "can't cry," which implies that you are making a conscious choice not to cry.

Your concern about crying is understandable, my friend, but it's important to know that crying isn't necessarily a part of everyone's grieving style, and not crying isn't necessarily an indicator that you are headed for a "nervous breakdown."

There could be any number of reasons why you "won't cry," including the fear that if you permit yourself to cry, you will lose control, there will be no end to it and the tears will never stop. I can assure you that it is physically impossible to cry 24 hours a day, and in grief, there is no such thing as crying too much. You may be a person who experiences grief more intellectually than emotionally or who finds it easier to process pain more actively, through physical exercise or exertion. As a child you may have been taught that crying is a sign of weakness, and strong people (especially men) don't cry.

In her insightful book The Courage to Grieve, grief therapist and bereaved sibling Judy Tatelbaum explains that it is vitally important to find a healthy outlet for our painful feelings. Expressing one's feelings openly by crying can be a sign of strength, vitality and wholeness rather than a sign of weakness:

Grief is a wound that needs attention in order to heal. To work through and complete grief means to face our feelings openly and honestly, to express and release our feelings fully, and to tolerate and accept our feelings for however long it takes for the wound to heal. For most of us, that is a big order. Therefore, it takes courage to grieve. It takes courage to feel our pain and to face the unfamiliar. It also takes courage to grieve in a society that mistakenly values restraint, where we risk the rejection of others by being open or different.

If you feel as if you need to cry but cannot, you might want to re-consider your beliefs and attitudes, and what you've been taught, about crying. Consider what would happen if you permitted yourself to let go for a time and release what you feel, knowing and believing that you will be better able to function afterward. Take some specific steps to help the tears come, and welcome them as a natural and helpful form of release. For example, you can:
  • Expect feelings of sadness, knowing that they are normal and they will pass.
  • Set aside a certain crying time each day when you can deliberately immerse yourself in grief. Use triggers and props to help bring on your tears (music, photographs, writings).
  • Watch a sad movie or listen to evocative music. Movies can be an especially effective tool in addressing certain grief issues, especially when your selections are made consciously and deliberately. (See, for example, Grief Observed: Using Movies to Move through Grief.)
In the normal course of grief, our sense of control is threatened if not lost completely, and we feel vulnerable and frightened by the intensity of our reactions. Oftentimes we're afraid that opening ourselves to the pain will cause us to "go crazy" or, as you say, "go insane, weep like a banshee or have a nervous breakdown." But just because you feel crazy, it doesn't mean that you are, in fact, losing your mind! Grief is not a pathological condition; it is a normal reaction to losing someone you love very dearly.

In fact, in the words of Christine Longaker, how we feel in bereavement is similar to how we feel when dying. In her book Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to Spiritual and Emotional Care of the Dying she writes:

In this transition, we are suspended between the past and the future. We may feel extreme anxiety and loss of control as we experience the ground of our 'known world' dissolving beneath our feet. The new shape of our life has not yet manifested, so we find no reassurance in the future. No wonder we find bereavement so difficult! Grieving challenges us to eventually die to our old way of life, letting go of our former expectations, identity, and all the associations we had with the deceased person (p. 165).

Of course it certainly is possible that you may indeed have some unresolved issues related to your brother and his death that you are blocking, my friend. Without a healthy outlet, painful feelings can back up like a river that is blocked by deadwood and debris. If you continue to feel "stuck" in your grief, as if you're making no forward progress, you may want to seek the advice of your doctor, bereavement counselor or clergy person--if only to be reassured that your feelings and reactions are within the normal limits of grieving.

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