In my last post, I addressed the problem of grief, and the only known cure for it, which is to grieve. Today I want to look more closely at the reasons this is so difficult. As mentioned before, there are two main reasons why grief doesn’t always come easily to us humans. Those reasons are, one: grief is painful, and two: many of us were taught to feel ashamed of ourselves when we allow tears or other visible displays of sadness. I want to look more closely at that second reason.
About a week after my last post, a client of mine, whom I will call Juan, drove to his hometown in order to attend the funeral of his father. Juan’s father had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected. This didn’t do much to cushion the blow when it came, however. Upon his return to Dallas, Juan came to see me for his weekly session, and told me about the events surrounding the funeral (as well as giving his permission for me to write about it).
Juan told me that when he got to his parents’ home, much of his family was already there. As Juan was embracing one of his siblings, he became tearful. Almost immediately, the wife of one of his brothers saw his tears, and exclaimed, “There won’t be any crying here!” As this echoed what Juan was taught as a child, he immediately stopped crying, even though he wanted to let out the pain. He remained emotionally constricted throughout his stay, although he was able to shed a few tears at the actual funeral. When he met with me, he expressed anger with his sister-in-law, whom he said had “shut me down.”
Now, why did Juan’s sister-in-law say what she did? Consider the situation: a man returns to his parents’ home to attend his father’s funeral, and embraces his relatives, all of whom are appropriately sad. He becomes tearful, which is an entirely appropriate response. And then the edict: “There won’t be any crying here!” What led her to say such a thing? I would venture to guess the sight of another’s tears made her very uncomfortable, so when she ordered Juan to stop crying, she was actually revealing information about herself. It seems likely that she, like so many of us, had learned to believe that crying was a bad thing, even in a situation where crying was a perfectly normal and natural behavior.
Parents are faced with a tough task when it comes to teaching their children about crying. When we are very young, we use crying as a way of communicating what we want. One of my earliest memories is of me sitting in a high chair at the dinner table, pointing to a big bowl of mashed potatoes and crying. This was my way of saying, “Please give me more mashed potatoes.” I remember my mom telling me at that point that I should use language to ask for what I want, instead of just pointing and crying. My mom was teaching me the difference between crying because I was in pain versus crying as a way of getting what I want – in other words, manipulation. All parents are faced with this task. In my case, my older siblings took it upon themselves to give me a hard time whenever I cried, no matter what. The worst insult they could hurl at me was, “Crybaby.” By the time I was about seven years old or so, I got really tired of hearing that term, so I stopped crying. About everything.
My tale is similar to what happened to millions of others, and I got off pretty easy, compared to some. As I have mentioned before, many of my clients tell me they heard this growing up: “You better quit your crying or I will give you something to cry about.” Imagine that! This usually meant a child was in pain, and began to cry, whereupon a parent (usually Dad) threatened the child with physical violence if they didn’t stop crying right away. It doesn’t take much of that to teach a child to bottle up her pain and lock it away, where it festers like an infection. Again, children might need to be reprimanded for crying as a way of manipulation, but quite often, parents and others will go completely overboard and teach children that there is never any good reason to cry. The result is millions of human beings walking around with a heavy load of accumulated pain and no effective way of releasing it.
Every therapist’s office I have ever seen has a box of tissues within easy reach of the client. What’s not always easy is letting go and having a good cry when one has been conditioned to believe that this is a no-no. It might not sound like a big deal, but this conditioning is actually one of the biggest impediments to the therapeutic process. Not everyone will overcome it. For some, the sense of guilt and shame they feel when they become tearful is so intense that they will stop coming to therapy rather than endure that kind of pain. This is truly unfortunate.
I have a fond hope that one day, parents will stop saying things like, “You better quit crying or I will give you something to cry about.” Often the reason parents say this is because that is exactly what they heard when they were kids. Unfortunately, parents don’t always stop to look at the rules they were taught and that they teach their own kids, and say, “What’s the reason for this rule? Is it a good rule?” I’m not saying we should allow our kids to become manipulative whiners. I am saying we should allow our kids to express their feelings in a way that is perfectly normal and healthy, without teaching them to feel bad about themselves for doing so. And if you believe this is a good rule for kids to live by, then you might want to consider that it’s good for you, too.
Juan told me that, for the coming weekend, he planned to buy a bottle of wine and watch a slide show of his father’s life in pictures. In so doing, he hopes to overcome his conditioning and have a good cry. (I’m not against having a glass of wine or two to help one overcome his own defenses.) At some point, I will suggest that Juan bring the slide show into session, where he can watch it again and then process his feelings with another human being, which I believe is a bit more therapeutic than being tearful while alone. He is on the right track. He knows what his body wants to do with his pain, which is to let it out. Wish him luck – and yourself, while you’re at it.