Crying tears is therapeutic. It is healthy and healing – in more ways than one.
So why do people feel embarrassed or shame about shedding tears, especially in front of others?
Crying Tears of Grief – What Triggers Tears?
It might interest you to know that there are actually 3 types of tears – basal, reflex (irritant – from fumes for example), and emotional. Some tears are caused by external or environmental reasons, some by physical pain and some tears gush in response to strong emotions like sadness, grief, joy.
According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology emotional tears are triggered by empathy for another, compassionate and societal pain, attachment-related pain (i.e. personal loss and grief), and sentimental or moral feelings, as well as physical pain. (see AAO reference at bottom of this article)
Crying Tears of Grief – Purpose of Tears
Charles Darwin once declared that emotional tears are “purposeless,” but since then research studies have shown that tears help with social bonding and encourage helpful behaviour from others. So, tears do have a positive purpose!
According to wellness expert Dr. Michael Roizen, MD, “tears are extremely useful. They help you see clearly. They wash debris from your eyes. They communicate all kinds of feelings.” (see Cleveland Clinic reference at bottom of this article)
For the purposes of this article, I’m only going to focus only on emotional tears.
Crying Tears of Grief – Emotional Tears
As someone who used to work in the medical / healthcare field and in organised religion, I have seen for myself the uncomfortableness that professionals and family members experience when witnessing grievers crying. And they may try all sorts of things to reduce their uncomfortableness.
So, they may minimise your grief, dismiss it, shame you for crying (i.e. “big boys don’t cry!”) or avoid seeing your tears by avoiding you altogether! Some professionals might try to suggest to grievers that they suppress their tears with medication, sedatives or anti-depressants. However, grief is not depression, nor should it be sedated or suppressed.
Grief is a natural and healthy response to a tragedy of the loss of a positive attachment figure in one’s life.
Crying Tears of Grief – Fear of Loss of Control
Many people fear that if the dam or floodgates of tears burst open, they won’t be able to stop crying. It’s not true. You will be able to stop crying – usually within the hour. That’s because your body has its own checks and balances when it comes to crying.
The body is under intense pain when it is crying. Crying is not physically sustainable for a long period of time. It needs relief from the intensity of emotional pain. And there will be a natural release from the pain.
The relief and release from crying will simply just happen as an involuntary reflex. So, cry for as long as you need to – knowing and trusting in your own body that it will naturally provide the release and relief from crying at just the right time. You may cry again. And that’s okay. It’s your body’s way of telling you that you need to cry again – for beneficial reasons, which I’ll say more about further down.
Crying Tears of Grief – Cultural Permission
The world is full of different cultures with different attitudes about grief and crying. Just because Western societies don’t give ‘permission’ to cry openly without some sort of shaming process (based on gender or ‘acceptable’ timeframe, for example), it doesn’t mean all cultures deny ‘permission’ to cry publicly.
I come from a culture and a family narrative of tragedy, so crying was acceptable and not something to be feared or suppressed. Not only that, but I witnessed from my family members the resilience that can come from crying – including the clarity and determination to survive and thrive that can come from crying.
Crying Tears of Grief – Do Women Cry More than Men?
Yes. About 60% more in fact. Nobody knows wholly why. Moreover, men have smaller tear ducts, which may contribute, in a way, to that statistic. (See Cleveland Clinic reference below)
Dr. Lauren Bylsma, PhD, University of Pittsburgh, says “it’s well established that women cry about three to four times more frequently than men. And when women do cry it tends to be more intense than men”.
(see AAO reference below)
Crying Tears of Grief – Stress-Relieving Tears
Crying can be tension- and stress-relieving. According to Dr Roizen, “crying for emotional reasons makes you feel better, releases tension, gives you an [emotional] reboot, and washes out stress-related toxins.” (see Cleveland Clinic reference below)
The stress that a death causes upon an intimate relationship, a family, a workplace and a community is significant! When a person grieves, their body can experience extreme stress but it is often not recognized. If death is an extremely stressful situation, and crying is a stress-relieving activity, then it becomes all the more important for you to resist the messages you receive that discourage you from crying, such as “aren’t you over it yet?”, or “there’s no point in crying – it’s not going to bring them back!”
What is significant to note is that more men die from stress-related diseases than women because of these suppressed feelings of sadness or grief that have no outlet through tears. Engaging in physical activity, like boxing or running, may provide some physical release but it doesn’t provide the kind of emotional release that tears were designed to do. It just isn’t the same kind of beneficial outlet as tears.
Crying Tears of Grief – Men and Tears
In our Western culture, there doesn’t seem to be much allowance for men to cry openly or freely. Boys, and consequently men, are taught to be strong and in control and to not show their vulnerable feelings, especially in public.
This, of course, has a knock-on effect for men who enter into two professions, in particular, that probably require more expression of compassion and feeling than any other professions because they are dealing with emotionally vulnerable people where the body is concerned. They are the two professions I mentioned above that I have worked in in the past – medicine and religious ministry.
I have heard many people convey to me their disappointment or shock sometimes when these professionals have not visibly shown feelings or consistent compassion for the grieving (not just for the griever after someone has died but also for someone who has been given a diagnosis / prognosis because they will be grieving too – called anticipatory grief). I have felt similarly through my own personal experiences when working with my male counterparts in these professions.
What might help?
1) Societal phrases and thoughts change over time. If enough people start conveying these messages to people, there could be a systemic change in permission-giving. You could try phrases such as ‘don’t be embarrassed to cry’ or ‘take your time / take all the time you need’ or ‘go ahead and cry; I won’t think of you as any less of a man if you cry in front of me’.
In time, hopefully we can convey as a Western society that it is not weakness to cry but simply nature’s most natural way of responding to tragedy. Men and boys need to be encouraged to express their feelings if they are to relate authentically in their humanness to the world.
2) Also, being mindful of where and when you cry might also help.
Some studies also suggest people are more likely to feel better after crying if they received social support while doing it, as expounded on below.
Crying Tears of Grief – The Right Time and Place To Cry
Dr. Bylsma has conducted multiple studies on crying and found that people were more likely to feel better after crying if they received social support during their tears. Tears that led to a resolution of the tear-inducing event or gave the crier a new understanding of what was wrong helped the individual feel better. In contrast, people who tried to hold back their tears or cried in a non-supportive social setting (at work, for example) were less likely to feel better after crying. (see AAO reference below)
If you are going to cry in a space where others might see you, try to ensure for your own mental wellbeing that you do it in a safe place – where you won’t be ridiculed or shouted at (e.g. work) for doing so, or dismissed or suppressed by family members or professionals.
“Remember, all tears are there for the greater good,” Dr. Roizen says.
It is nature’s way of cleansing our body and healing our soul, so there’s no need to hold back (in the right place for you) when you feel like crying.
Cleveland Clinic / Dr Roizen quotes – https://health.clevelandclinic.org/tears-why-we-cry-and-more-infographic/
AAO / Dr. Bylsma quotes – https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/all-about-emotional-tears
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Reach out by email to leave a comment, let me know if you felt anything was missing or what you’d like to know more about.
About Santou Eve
With 25 years’ field experience as a counsellor / therapist, spiritual leader, hospital chaplain, and a specialist young people practitioner, Santou helps those grieving loss from relationship challenges, health diagnoses and dying, and bereavement transitions.
Santou has lived internationally across many cultures. Personal circumstances and themes of major losses (such as surviving Genocide, being a child war refugee, loss from cancer, etc.) created the conditions for her to process and train to help people with trauma and grief.
Her vision to create a radical movement about how to face loss and grief has fueled her work supporting families, groups, and individuals (aged 13+) around the world.
Through her unique combination of professional training, spiritual practices (within and outside of organised religion) as well as personal experience of multiple types of losses, Santou has developed a unique, therapeutic-spiritual method called the S.T.E.E.R.™ approach, to help people through in-life, dying, and bereavement transitions.
Santou is holding space for you and would love to see you thrive. She offers a free 30-minute clarity call to start helping you move out of your suffering in a gently accelerated way. Click here to schedule your free call today, and you can download a free helpful resource called “You Don’t Have to Say Goodbye” while you’re there.