Crying jags surprise me. The urge to cry lately can come on suddenly, yet offers a potential heightened sense of relief to my mind and body post-cry. Alleys, cars, and movie theaters are great places for me to sob it out. Cancer has opened me up to grief.
I’m still caught off guard when tears come in pubic. Despite living with cancer for the past two and a half years, I continue to feel uncomfortable when I burst into sobs while walking in public — often with my adorable dog. I seek a semblance of solitude in the mural lined alleyways not far from my home. I find comfort in the murals, which serve as markers of the past and present (when there is new tagging “art”). Seeing them lets me ponder and acknowledge my own past and present.
When I wipe off fat tears from my cheeks and look around to make sure no one is watching from a nearby multi-story apartment building, I may chide myself for yet again forgetting to carry tissues. At least I remember to bring large and dark sunglasses, to hide my red and puffy eyes from passing strangers as I slowly walk back home with my dog. This crying is my way of acknowledging and even dealing with the trauma (to my body) and loss (of a few body parts including my breasts and “down there” lady parts) from serious illness.
A few weeks ago, I received news that my mom had a series of massive strokes. She has been in the ICU, as well as a nursing facility. I therefore also feel like I am mourning what has happened to mom. The closest my family and I have come to a group grieving session was in her hospital room, when I mentioned how much her cat missed her — enter the waterworks for me and my immediate family members, who were gathered around mom’s bed.
Sometimes when I cry, I find myself trying to understand what I am feeling. The quiet and comfort of these moments lets me figure out if I am feeling sad, mad, powerlessness, grief, or a heady combo of all of the above. I do know that my crying gives me relief and tends to overtake me later in the day or early evening. If I am feeling HALT (hungry, angry, lonely or tired) then I can later realize that such factors tend to force my hand, compelling me to take a break from my current routine of working and researching mom’s health situation, and communicating with others about it. Crying reminds me that sometimes I need to put myself first and deal with my own issues. I have some experience with therapy and support groups, but realize I yearn to explore more scientific information and related data on crying.
One international study, entitled “When Is Crying Cathartic?” (conduced by Lauren M. Blysma, Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets, and Jonathan Rottenberg), carries significant weight because it surveyed over 4,000 participants from 35 countries and addressed the variations in context for crying. It posits that earlier studies going as far back as 1895 showed that “crying acts as a way of relieving pressure or tension and allowing blocked negative emotions to be released and relieved.” They predict that the most cathartic crying sessions — crying episodes followed by the greatest mood improvement — are the ones in which a person experiences “positive, supportive, social interactions” where one can receive comfort from others.
For nearly six years, I have been going to twice-weekly support group meetings and have often felt like chunks of pain are coming out of my body when I cry in a safe setting with others, because I am letting go. The cathartic experience is reinforced by acts of caring and kindness; bouts of crying in this environment mean I’m often the recipient of hugs and words of support from folks who simply listen, rather than offering advice or direction to me as it relates to my life or even my role in my mom’s health situation.
Talking to Rachel Tenpenny Crawford, who is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Co-Founder of Teamotions, is an eye opener. Crawford helps people survive and even thrive after dealing with loss, tragedy, and heartbreak. Her wisdom is backed up by her own experiences with tragedy and loss; in 2008, her twin daughters died a few weeks after being born. When I ask Crawford about the role of judgment and feelings in crying, she told me that crying is so powerful because it’s a release.
“We have pressures from life. We can’t say time out and stop,” says Crawford. “As we function in life, we have to suppress a lot of stuff. We cry because we are sad, happy, and angry.”
Like many people dealing with similar challenges, I frequently suppress my emotions, and try to hold things together in front of my husband and young son; crying at work or with folks I know professionally is not something I feel trained or ready to do; culturally I have been taught to be a caregiver.
Crawford described emotional tears and the microscopic structure of dried tears, a multi-year important work from photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher detailed on Smithsonian.com by Joseph Stromberg. When we shed emotional or psychic tears based in joy or grief, it also lets the body release via a biochemical reaction a natural painkiller called leucine encephalin. So while I grieve in the alley alone, I am also producing and receiving a helpful hormone that also lessens this deep and personal pain.
Crawford’s knowledge and advice helps me feel more comfortable with my own need to cry — something which used to make me feel like a hot mess.
“All feelings are legitimate. They aren’t good or bad,” she tells me. “You can ask yourself ‘what does a feeling mean?’ Of course it’s okay to have feelings. Feelings are like visitors — sometimes they come and go. Sometimes they stay. Sometimes they are in and out.”
Hearing this lessens my need to stick to some sort of rigid grieving schedule, and allows me to acknowledge rather than repress the feelings which cause me to cry, including sadness and grief, as I deal with my mom’s declining health. I am still tired and ragged from my own experience with cancer and listen to Crawford closely as she advises that it is of utmost importance to put rest at a premium.
Another expert named Dr. Claudia Luiz, who has a Master’s in Education from Harvard and a Psychoanalytic Doctorate from the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, further helps me dig into the ‘why’ of my crying: “From the perspective of the unconscious, we cry as a way to get help. This activates the reward systems in the brain as we ignite the hope that we will be heard through this expression of our feelings. It is a testament to our connectedness to people — and significant as you’re grieving for your mother — because without the connectedness there is no crying.”
One of the most intense crying jags happened after I left my mom at the ICU. By coincidence, it occurred in the same building where I stayed and recovered for many days at a time from three of my rather big cancer surgeries. We’re still in the early days after mom’s stroke, and she is not able to speak in full sentences, walk, bathe, and dress or feed herself. There are so many unknowns, from how long she may live to what sort of facility she may go to next, and I have a rough time getting any sort of decent rest. Sleep often eludes me because I’m too worried, sad, and concerned about mom — as well as my dad and brother — to allow my mind to rest. When sleep does come, it’s often disrupted by the kind of dreams about mom that shock me awake.
Blysma et al’s study on cathartic crying allowed respondents to report on the type of event(s) that caused crying: conflict, loss, personal inadequacy, witnessing suffering, physical suffering, psychological suffering, and positive events… I feel like my crying covers all of those minus the final one.
As I sit in the pale grey hospital room, I also worry if I should tell mom things that could possibly soothe her and even lead to forgiveness for us both. Because she is asleep, I keep my thoughts to myself, and finally leave the hospital. The night is cold and dark. I feel lonely and overwhelmed, and am probably not 100 percent aware that the location may be a giant, multistoried grey mammoth trigger. (An apropos voiceover for a TV show of this could be a moody woman saying, “Here’s where they cut off both of my breasts and I spent the hottest and most physically uncomfortable night of my night, sweating, bleeding and crying in pain.”)
By the time I reach my petite black car, it has started raining. The car is parked under dark and fragrant green trees on a big city street that lacks both cars and human activity — which is odd given how busy the hospital and nearby MUNI train stop can be. As strange as the quiet city atmosphere is, I realize quickly that it opens me up to my emotions; I prefer to not have any witnesses for the oncoming outpouring. I lean over my steering wheel and start sobbing while saying, “I am so sorry!” My puffer jacket rustles and makes noises beneath me, and I can hear my nose pulling and pushing snot in and around my nostrils. My mouth feels dry and I am crazy thirsty for water, but I keep saying, “I am so sorry!” in an increasing loud voice. Again. And again.
In the moment, I feel like I am saying sorry to my mom. Whatever I am feeling, it’s fierce and strong; my thoughts and emotions have been percolating and bubbling for too long inside the confines of my tired body. Later, I will decide that actually, I was saying sorry to the both of us, because I am sorry to be so hard on myself.
Being a solo crier has its merits and own history, according to Tina B. Tessina, PhD. (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction . She notes: “We are very embarrassed by grief in this culture. That’s a cultural thing. Some cultures have all sorts of permission — see Italians with grief, which is my family. They throw themselves on the coffin. But in America, we don’t have that. People are embarrassed and uncomfortable, and a safe place is very often alone. That way, we have the freedom to do it, without upsetting someone else.”
She’s right. I don’t want to cry in front of my family and friends, if I can help it. I also feel it’s best to somehow shield my young son from the troubles I have inside, so that he can enjoy being an 8 year old with all the cartoons, video games, books, and baseball that seem to be his normal. The irony is that this solo cry policy can be self defeating; If, as Dr. Luiz posits, crying is literally a cry for help, doing so in solitude means no one can hear me; perhaps I need to learn how to switch roles from time to time from being the carer to being the cared for, and give myself permission to ask for help.
Vicki O’Grady, MA, LMHC, details more about how we struggle with crying, and it starts with the programming we receive at a young age. “Crying from the beginning of our lives is where we get people to give us something and how we signal that we need something.” Maybe my body is doing for me what I can’t intellectually do and verbally say, signaling to the world via my tears the wide range of emotions that are bubbling up. Still, the few times I run into humans during my alley way crying sessions, I am relieved to have those big sunglasses, and subtly use my sleeve to calm down the sniffles from my drippy nose. I find I have to look away when one fellow in his 30s, who looks like he is on his way to teach a hiking class, is headed my way. I try to not read too much into what his face and eyes project, all the while wondering, “Did he see me cry? Did he hear me cry?”
The day I learn that my mom is being transferred from the hospital to a skilled nursing facility, I feel scared and sad. I return to a nearby mural-lined alley with my dog, where I lean over some bright green plants as I hold on to the leash that connects me to my dog. Is it easier to be vulnerable in an alley instead of back at home, where my husband or son is relaxing as they play videogames? Do my tears scare them? Is it that the tears scare me? Tessina had said that grief needs a witness, and I realize that I do. I realize I am first letting myself get to the point of crying, until I may or may not be ready to be vulnerable enough to let my husband, friends of family be with me as I howl.
“You are losing her by inches. You’ve already lost a big chunk of who she is to you. Some of her is still alive,” is what Tessina helps me understand about how I am feeling about my mom’s loss of abilities and independence. I let the tears fall down my cheeks as I look at the bright colors of the murals and realize that for now, my solo crying is working personal interior magic. As I keep an open mind and open heart, I may soon graduate to another stage of crying and healing in the comfort of others. If — a big IF — and when I am ready.
Mary Ladd’s writing has appeared in Playboy, Ozy, San Francisco Weekly, and KQED. She is currently working on The Wig Report, a hilarious website and book project with an insiders take on catastrophic illness. Mary went through breast cancer via 22 rounds of chemo, 7 surgeries, 8 infections, 49 blood tests, and completely lost her hair, eyebrows, and 30 pounds… but gained 4 wigs and many fashion finds in the process.