Recently, I was talking to one of my friends who had a daughter that had been killed in a car accident. His daughter was similar in age to my son PK who was killed at the age of 18. He was struggling with how to process his grief. He said, “I put all of her pictures away… is that wrong?” I responded, “There is not a right way or a wrong way to grieve… you have to figure out how to work through your grief.” He said, “I don’t know if I am. One day at the office I was thinking about her and thought I was going to cry, but I didn’t want to look like a baby.” I asked, “Do you think that you are being a baby because you are crying for your daughter who was killed and who you love and miss?” Sadly, this is a typical feeling for many people in our culture. Somehow, tears and crying are viewed by many as signs of weakness. Many feel if they are going to cry that they should cry privately when no one is around. Why do we feel this way? I decided to dig in to any benefits that tears and crying may give to us. I am convinced that there must be a purpose for our tears… I wish that our culture would throw away the stigma of crying and encourage others to be real in their pain and grief.
Dr. William Frey, Biochemist and “tear expert”, at the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota discovered that reflex tears are 98% water, whereas emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body after crying. When Dr. Frey studied the composition of tears, he found that emotional tears shed these hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress.
Tears contain stress hormones. When we cry, we are actually allowing our body to emotionally detox.
Additional studies also demonstrate that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones. Many people in our culture today embrace the notion of detox when it comes to our bodies! Perhaps if we could all start realizing that tears and crying are our body’s way of detoxing emotionally then maybe we would all embrace that being real and crying emotional tears is actually a sign of strength. Judith Orloff, MD, states that she “smiles when her patients cry because they are courageously healing depression or other difficult emotions with tears.” She states that she is “happy for their breakthrough, and that we should let our tears flow to purify stress and negativity.” Stephen Sideroff, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at UCLA and director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics shares, “Crying activates the body in a healthy way. Letting down one’s guard and one’s defenses and (crying) is a very positive, healthy thing.”
Looking across to other cultures, the Japanese are learning how helpful crying is to one’s health. Some cities in Japan now have “crying clubs” called rui-katsu (meaning literally, “tear-seeking”), where people go and cry together. Perhaps our culture could develop some practices that would help those in pain to know that crying is healthy and actually helps your body to detox emotionally. I would love to see someone like my friend who lost his daughter feel free to cry and to express his grief. I would love for him to realize that it is not a sign of weakness but instead an expression of his love for his daughter and for the grief that he has as he misses her and wishes that she was able to do so much more in her life and in his. I would love for our culture to embrace tears and crying as a wonderful emotional detox!!
When people are grieving, not only do many feel unable to express their pain through crying and tears to others, but sadly, many feel guilty for expressing joy and laughter. A lady that I talked to a few months back had become a widow a couple of years ago. She shared that she felt so guilty if she was laughing and expressing joy being her husband had died. She stated that he wasn’t able to have these moments with her anymore; therefore, she felt as if she should not either. So sadly, that is also something common for those who are grieving.
If you go to the mayoclinic.org, their staff share on their website that “laughter is a great form of stress relief, and that’s no joke.” Their staff shares that “laughter can: a. Stimulate many organs. Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. b. Activate and relieve your stress response. A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling. Soothe tension. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.” Dr. Lee Berk and Dr. Stanley-Tan at the Loma Linda University of California have conducted research and have found that laughter “reduces stress hormone levels. By reducing the level of stress hormones, you’re simultaneously cutting the anxiety and stress that impacts your body. Additionally, the reduction of stress hormones may result in higher immune system performance.”
People who are grieving hopefully will learn that lowering our stress level is an important part of our grief journey. Laughter is not betrayal of the person that has died. Laughter is a way to express joy. Hopefully, as we travel on our individual journeys, we will give ourselves permission to laugh, to express joy, and to celebrate the person that was in our life that has died. It is my hope that we can each come to realize that those who have died would absolutely wish for their loved ones to continue to have as many moments as possible where we are able to express joy. Isn’t it wonderful that laughter is another way that we can emotionally detox and reduce our stress hormone levels?
After my husband died in August 2011, I remember emphasizing to my children the importance of being real. I would tell them, “If you are sad and want to cry then cry. If you are angry and want to vent then let’s talk. If you are happy and laughing then enjoy the moment that you are in and know that dad would be happy that you are happy.” I definitely was trying to emphasize the importance of being real and wanting my children to be free to express their grief. After my only son died in June 2013 at the age of 18, then I continued to try to emphasize these things to my daughters again and again. I continued to tell them to be real. The point that I was missing was that they didn’t think that I was being real. I had no idea. I have shared in several different blogs about some of our experiences in our trauma based family counseling that we went to in the summer of 2014. If you read the blogs, then you may remember how each of us had do a family sculpt. We had to place our family members in a set up that demonstrated how things were in our home. (Previously I shared Kylee’s family sculpt and how she was demonstrating my anxiety that was coming out with countless questions and checking on the girls.) In this blog on tears, MiKayla’s family sculpt fits perfectly.
MiKayla put the three of us in a circle with our arms around each other. I was excited. I was silently processing… this is great as she sees us all close together. I was feeling really good about this one. The next thing that MiKayla did was horrifying to me. She wanted us all to put pillows in front of our faces. She was symbolizing that we all really couldn’t see how each other was doing and that we were hiding how we were feeling from each other. I felt like I had my breath knocked out of me. What? How in the world could she feel like this? All I did was emphasize the importance of us being real. Why did my baby girl feel like we couldn’t see each other’s faces and that we weren’t showing how we were doing? What I learned next was so crucial. Had I been talking about being real? Absolutely. But what was I modeling? When I had my big cries then I did them on my own… in the shower, when I was driving alone, when I was in my room alone, or when I was home alone. ALONE!! That is the key word. I did not do my big cries in front of the girls. I wanted them to know that I was ok and that I was still their mom and that they didn’t have to take care of me. I wanted them to know that they could still be kids and enjoy their years. But what was my modeling showing them? My modeling was teaching them that they couldn’t have their big cries in front of me. My modeling was showing that I was grieving alone. I was so taken aback.
I was so thankful for this time with my daughters where we were doing these exercises. We were truly learning from each other. I knew my baby girl was right. I could talk about being real all that I wanted. If I wasn’t being real with them also, then they were not truly feeling permission from me to be able to be real in their grief. I have to continue to self-evaluate. Am I modeling for my two girls what I am asking them to do? Am I letting myself cry in front of them and knowing in my heart that is ok? Am I discussing my times of anger openly and honestly with them? I will honestly share with you that I still have work to do in that area. Especially the big cry part. There is such a part of me that does not want to burden my daughters or make them feel like they have to take care of me. I want them to know I am still their mom and they can continue to enjoy being who they are. Did you catch my faulty thinking in this? I was believing that if I truly cried in front of them that they would then have to take care of me. I would let myself show a few tears, but I was very measured in stopping my tears so that I did not cry hard in front of my girls.
My daughter’s message to me in that session was that when I model that I have my big cries by myself then my two incredible daughters feel as if they must do the same. I am continuing to work on this area personally. I am sure that I will continue to throughout the years. I somehow also was viewing it as a sign of weakness and not of strength to cry in front of my girls. I was applying a double standard. In my heart and mind, when my daughters cried, then I thought good, they are freely expressing their grief and pain. However, I was not giving myself that same permission. I was instead internally telling myself that if I cried in front of them that I was being weak and that I should hide those times from them. I was modeling the opposite of what I wanted my two girls to do. I will continue to work on this area myself as I am encouraging all of you to do the same.
I am thankful that I can share that the girls and I have many, many times of great laughter. Tonight at dinner we were all talking and laughing. I was explaining to them about what I was blogging about and sharing about the positive effects of tears and laughter. As we were laughing so hard later then I said, “Great! Think of all of the stress hormones we are releasing!” The girls rolled their eyes and said, “Mom, are you going to say this every time we are laughing?” I smiled and thought to myself, I will try not to always say it, but I am sure that I will continue to think it! I am so thankful for all of the times and moments that the girls and I continue to have laughter and joy in our lives despite our pain. I hope that we all continue to work on being real… that we give ourselves permission to express and share our tears and our laughter… after all, who can argue with emotional detox and it’s benefits 🙂