Widow Asks: Why Can’t I Cry?

Question from Phyllis: My husband of 54 years passed away one year ago and except for a few tears the night he passed away, I have not been able to shed a tear since. He was 75 years old, and had a number of physical ailments including diabetes and chronic kidney failure. He was living in a nursing home – recovering from the 5th broken bone in less than a year — when he just stopped breathing. I have gone through everything you have to do when you lose a spouse — preparations and funeral, plus the added turmoil of moving and disposing of many posessions, as we had just bought a different house before he died – all with no tears. He was a recovering alcoholic who had been dry for 10 years. I still had some anger connected with the alcoholism and have thought that might have something to do with the lack of tears. I don’t know. Why can’t I cry?

Dr. Robert Neimeyer, author of Lessons of Loss and Rainbow in the Stone, responds: Dear Phyllis: Sometimes there is a world of difference in a question when we change only one word. Consider your question: “Why can’t I cry?” and the alternative, “Why didn’t I cry?” The first may seem unanswerable, almost like an accusation that there is something wrong or broken about you. The second, in contrast, may have many answers that easily come to mind: “I was somewhat prepared for his death by his many illnesses,” “His death released him from constant suffering,” “I was emotionally exhausted by the caregiving,” “I was grateful for the last 10 years of sobriety to partly repair the hurt of his years of alcohol abuse,” and so on. All of these answers and more could be satisfying explanations for your absence of tears, without the added assumption that you are “grieving wrong.”

Bereavement professionals are almost always moved by genuine compassion in their efforts to help those who are struggling with loss, but sometimes — I confess! — we become a little too mesmerized with our theories, and forget that reality is more complex. One theory that has sometimes been taken too literally is the one that says we all should experience profound sadness and tears with the death of a loved one, and that if we don’t, we are living in “denial.”

Mostly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. For example, one very sensitive study of large numbers of older spouses who have lost their partners in circumstances like yours found that 45% of the surviving spouses (mostly widows) were models of resilience — that is, they bounced back surprisingly quickly from the loss, and within a matter of few months were reasonably happy, active, and purposeful in their pursuit of meaningful lives. Another 10%, most of whom were caregivers to chronically ill spouses or from bad marriages, actually felt a great deal better after the death than they did years before! The lesson is that when we formulate “feeling rules” for the bereaved, we are going to get it wrong at least half the time.

This being said, it sometimes is the case that complex relationships lead to complex grief, and that when we have good reason to be angry at someone we also love, it can be hard to give either feeling its full due. Grief therapists can often be helpful with this by helping us explore and express these contradictory feelings for the same person, and figure out how to be somehow true to both.

You might already have a sense of whether this is true for you, but if not, just give it time, and a few months down the line, it will be clear to you if your apparently resilient response is genuine, or whether conversing with a counselor can be of help. For now, you can perhaps just rest easy with the idea that some losses bring not only grief, but also relief, and this doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on either the griever or the grieved.

Robert A. Neimeyer, PhD, can be reached through his web page, http://web.mac.com/neimeyer, where you can find information on his scholarship, presentations, books and media, and more.

Robert Neimeyer

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Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology, University of Memphis, where he also maintains an active clinical practice. Neimeyer has published 25 books, including Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society: Bridging Research and Practice, and serves as Editor of the journal Death Studies. The author of over 350 articles and book chapters and a frequent workshop presenter, he is currently working to advance a more adequate theory of grieving as a meaning-making process.

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  • Phyl Pattenden says:

    Lost husband 6 months now 61 yrs. marriage, can’t cry but it is there and I turn tears off right away when they start to well up…….pls advise what to do…….worried will turn into depression which I had all my life but under control. Tks, spoke to dr and she says it is grief, pls help. I am 83