“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief…and unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

Here they come again. I have no idea what triggered this waterfall. One moment I was driving to work, thinking of my schedule for the day ahead, and the next thing I knew, the tears were rolling down my cheeks. This is part of the new normal that is me since my precious granddaughter was born still more than five years ago.

I’ve never been a crier. In the past, defined as before my granddaughter Maddy’s stillbirth, I would cry more out of anger than sadness. I took pride in the fact that I did not cry in front of others. Now I cry easily, and each time I am amazed. Is that really me? I actually touch my face to be sure the dampness I am feeling is coming from my eyes.

I certainly didn’t expect that I would still be crying several months after Maddy died. I sobbed almost every morning during my commute to work for at least the first year–I was emotionally drained by the time I arrived at my office. Most of my crying was, and still is, done in the car.

I was disappointed in myself, feeling that I should be able to control my emotions better than I was doing. I found an excellent article on grief on the web site of the University of California counseling center. The article states “society often encourages people to quickly move away from grief. Unfortunately, refusing to cry, suffering in silence, and ‘being strong’ are often viewed as admirable and desirable reactions to loss. Many people have internalized the idea that grieving and mourning should be done quickly, quietly and efficiently.”

People will make comments like “She’s such a trooper” or “He’s a rock” in tones of respect and admiration. How often do we hear somebody say, “Isn’t it good that she can get her grief out?” People are uncomfortable witnessing any strong emotional expression, so they are quick to praise those who keep their emotions to themselves. I can think of many times when I pretended to have a speck of dirt irritating my contact lens, rather than admit that I was crying.

We have long heard that tears are therapeutic, and recently some psychologists and scientists have been conducting research in an attempt to determine if there is indeed a difference between tears produced from an irritant and tears resulting from strong emotions.

William Frey, a biochemist, has studied the chemical makeup of tears. His discovery that tears produced by emotional stimuli contained more total protein than tears caused by an irritant led him to postulate that emotionally based tears contain high levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone released under stress, so perhaps crying is nature’s way of eliminating toxins. Crying is actually good for us-emotional tears are part of our body’s protective mechanism of coping with the high levels of hormones that build up when we are under emotional stress.

No wonder people frequently report that crying has a cleansing effect. How many times have you heard somebody make a comment that they had a good cry and felt better? This may in part be due to the psychological release, but it is also the physiological response of reducing stress hormones.

Ironically, crying is not something our society encourages. Crying is often equated with weakness or a loss of control rather than recognition that our tears are an outward expression of the emotions coursing through us. We need to be careful not to use crying as a measurement of grief, however. Some people cry much more readily than others. Just because a person doesn’t cry does not mean that they are not feeling the pain of the loss.

The person who sobs frequently is not out of control. People around us may be uncomfortable witnessing our tears, but we need to be allowed to shed them. We also may not be at ease crying openly in front of others. For the most part, I did not cry when I talked about what had happened to my family. I cried in the shower. I cried when I was alone in my house. Often, I woke up crying in the middle of the night. I viewed a stage production of Alice in Wonderland with a new appreciation for the scene where Alice is trapped in the river of her tears. I can indeed relate to feeling as though I am drowning in my own tears. And, just like Alice, I am often caught off guard when the tears start.

Tears have long been the subject of art and music. One of the most haunting songs I have ever heard is Tears in Heaven, written by Eric Clapton after the death of his young son. I dare you to listen to Celine Dion sing My Heart Will Go On, the theme song from the movie Titanic, and not choke up.

The emotional pain portrayed in Pablo Picasso’s painting “Weeping Woman” is instantly recognized even by those who aren’t familiar with his art. Whether they are the result of joy or sorrow, tears are a response to emotions for which we can find no words. They reveal our most vulnerable self. When we cry we are releasing the pain of the loss, not the memory of the child we cherish. The most dramatic rainbows seem to follow the most severe storms.

Now when my eyes overflow, I use a guided imagery technique to visualize my tears washing away the pain that I carry inside my heart and soul. And when they finally stop, I look for the brilliant rainbow of love and hope.

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Nina Bennett

Nina Bennett has 4 grandchildren, one of whom was unexpectedly born still following a healthy full-term pregnancy. She has worked in reproductive health since 1976, and was a childbirth educator for nearly 10 years. A healthcare professional and frequently requested guest lecturer, Nina presents talks and workshops locally and nationally. She is the Principal Investigator of an IRB-approved research study looking at how grandparents incorporate perinatal loss into their families. Nina is a social activist who gives voice to the often silent grief of grandparents through her writing and speaking. Her articles and poetry have appeared in the anthology Mourning Sickness, The Broadkill Review, Slow Trains Literary Journal, Grief Digest, the News Journal, A.G.A.S.T., Different Kind of Parenting, M.I.S.S.ing Angels, and Living Well Journal, as well as many other publications. Nina is the author of Forgotten Tears A Grandmother’s Journey Through Grief. Proceeds from her book are donated to MISS Foundation, and other agencies supporting families bereaved by the death of a baby. She contributed a chapter to They Were Still Born, a collection of first-person accounts of stillbirth.

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