Years ago I read this: “We need to cry at least once every two weeks to stay healthy.” When I say that in my workshops or classes about grief, people laugh – they think it is a joke. It was not meant as a joke, not by the original author whose name and book have long since disappeared from my memory and library, or by me.
When I was a hospital chaplain I spent many hours with people who had good reason to cry – either they or someone they loved were dying or seriously ill. I noticed over time that everybody who did cry in my presence apologized for doing so. Of course, the situations were ones in which it was entirely appropriate to cry. Many times in that setting, patients and their families don’t want to cause “upset”, so feel they can’t cry in front of each other. Again, when I am teaching this I say: “If I’m dying or seriously injured or sick and my family is not standing around my bed crying, I’m going to be really pissed off.”
All of this is to say that in what has frequently been called a death-denying culture, I suggest, we are also a grief-denying culture. Have you ever met an infant who does not cry? Have you ever met a young child who doesn’t cry when something they want is taken from them? It is a normal, natural, pre-verbal response to discomfort, pain, and sadness, even anger. Perhaps we need to re-learn grief-skills, or un-learn the conditioning that helps us mask true feelings.
So how did we get here as a culture and how do we get beyond it. First of all I think we have to recognize that grief is present with any loss, not only death – be it the loss of a relationship, a position, a pet, a title, health – anything that we value, even things like houses or possessions. Secondly, we have to recognize what patterns we have learned so that we don’t feel the feelings, have the tears or anger. Many of these are quite acceptable distractions, such as keeping busy at something, even if it’s shopping. Then there are all the familiar addictions, including prescription drugs for depression, which itself may be frozen or unrecognized grief.
We might be up against not only societal expectations about tears and anger, but also our own. We think it is weakness to be vulnerable, or god-forbid, out of control! If we get past this and actually allow ourselves to dip into long suppressed feeling, we may fear they will overwhelm us. I have been there. Years ago when going through a very difficult personal time, I was deeply hurt by several ongoing situations in my life. I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer and I cried for two days. I thought I would never stop. (I was also eight months pregnant which brought the emotions closer to the surface).
Tears are good for our health. When we cry, natural endorphins are released. These are the body’s own painkillers. Laughter also releases endorphins. We have to give ourselves permission to feel the feelings, and we may need support to be able do this. For me this becomes a spiritual practice, since when there is “no-one” to take the pain to, I take it to the Divine Mystery as part of a daily practice. When I have been in “fresh” grief, such as after my father died, I found my daily journaling practice a significant aid as I lived through my grief. Sometimes I come to that practice feeling heavy – maybe something has not worked out as I had wanted – this also is grief. I find it helps to put on music that allows me to release the tears.
I invite you to think of tears a sacred, as a gift. I’m not sure where I got this story but I love it: A woman in great distress over the death of her son came to her spiritual leader for comfort. He listened to her patiently while she poured out her tale of woe. Then he said softly, “I cannot wipe away your tears, my dear. I can only teach you how to make them holy.”
The Benedictine tradition is based on the writings of St. Benedict, a 6th century monk. Whenever Benedict wrote about the experience of prayer, he wrote about tears. In fact, tears pervade the early monastic literature. Tears were often described as the bread of the monastic life. Puncture a human heart and it will bleed; pierce it spiritually and the result is tears.
Yesterday on my way to art class on my bike, I crossed the intersection of Yonge and Gerrard. An ambulance was just pulling away and in the middle of the road was a bent and twisted bike. I started to cry as I kept riding. Writing this now brings tears. How will we ever find the compassion we need to move forward as people on this planet if we do not know how express the pain and sadness that is inherent in all life?
 Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition, Page 49.