The Art of Crying

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book?
— King David in Psalm 56:8

The great King David was a conspicuous crier. Sure, his hands were covered in the blood of his enemies, but his cheeks were covered in the salty tears of his sorrow time and time again. Not so with me. I have not possessed the emotional range of the poet–warrior David. For most of my life I’ve survived my own hardships by reigning in the emotions and tamping them down. I learned to appear calm and collected in the presence of anger, fear, and sadness. It was the way I kept blood off my hands and tears off my cheeks and at times it served me well. But I’ve often wondered if the way I coped with the world around me actually did violence to the world within me. 

As a child, I was tearful and often timid when the situation required it. I froze in moments of terror—like losing my new scissors in the third grade—and the tears flowed so hard I couldn’t even tell the teacher what happened. When real trauma hit my family in my teenage years, however, the freeze reached my heart and face as well. The tears became stuck in my body and would only thaw under the most gentle coaxing. I felt some inner voice telling me that I had to be strong for everyone else, and tears were never strong. In short, shame held my tears as prisoners of war.

I rarely cried in the years that followed. That’s not to say I didn’t feel. I certainly felt sadness, hurt, fear, and pain. Music and art stirred me. Sadness in films hit me. My heart was even broken more than once. But I worked really hard to bury the emotions and keep the tears away. Whenever they started to surface, I shoved them down with such force that I felt literal, physical pain in my throat and put on a strong, still face. My body became my shield and protector.

Beneath all the pain was this core belief so ancient that I can’t even pinpoint where it came from. It was in the air I breathed:

Men don’t cry — especially strong, Christian men. Tears are proof of weakness — a weak faith, a weak resolve, a weak will unable to master its own emotions. Cry in your room alone if you have to, but do not let anyone see it. If you cry in the presence of someone else, hide your face in shame.

It wasn’t until after my first child was born that the frozen sea within me began to thaw. It came from all the expected ways of course—seeing a counselor, adult friendships, vulnerability, and deep, deep pain—but mostly through engaging my story with others. 

I enrolled in the Narrative Focused Trauma Care training program at the Allender Center and began writing my stories of heartache and reading them out loud in the presence of others. To find my tears, I needed the faces of others. When I saw a group of peers shedding tears on my behalf, my own tears returned to me and I welcomed them home. In the years that followed, they visited occasionally, yet always politely knocking on the door to make sure the time was right. 

As the tears expanded, so did my emotional range. Along with the tears came access to other long-dormant emotions as well, and the growing ability to express them rather than suppress them. Little did I know that I would desperately need those tears; that I would need to be skilled in the art of crying for what awaited me in mid-life.

* * *

One spring day I came home from my son’s kindergarten graduation and found my wife on the verge of death. Two days later, in a hospital room surrounded by family, we said goodbye and watched her die. There was no inner voice in that moment telling me to shove the tears deep into my body; no pain in my throat. Just a seemingly endless well of tears pouring out of my heart and eyes and onto the linoleum floor of the hospital. 

Tears are a helpful companion in a time of tragedy. Scientists tell us that they relieve our bodies of stress biochemicals and actually improve our physical health. The scriptures of the Bible tell us that tears are the proper and even godly response to death, loss, and pain. At my late wife’s funeral, they became a drink offering poured out in honor of her life. I trust by faith that God bottled those tears and calls them sacred.

In the days and weeks that followed, my tears were never far away. They were eager to come to my side when sadness, loneliness, or the searing pain of loss welled up within me. I welcomed them more than the presence of a friend, knowing that they brought some healing of their own.

In grief you realize that there are no answers. Sure, your mind will search for them non-stop until you crash into your bed asleep, but you will not find them. It just hurts. Tears are the closest thing we have to comfort. In grief, the best thing you can do is cry.

As the weeks turned to months, the tears were less like houseguests and more like neighbors who were there if you needed them. Yet I still heard the old voice of shame pipe up every once in a while, telling me that I’d cried enough. I began to notice a dialogue between my left and right brain anytime I wondered if it was still okay to cry.

“Yes,” my left brain told them. “There is no should in grief. There is no right way. There is only what is.” 

My right brain, however, raised a firm hand. “You got a free pass at the funeral, but now it’s time to move on.” 

How is it that the cognitive, analytical part of me knows that it’s okay to cry but the emotive part of me can’t seem to get there? How can I know that death demands tears but still feel ashamed when confronted with my own grief? As it turns out, the emotive, right brain where shame often resides doesn’t respond as well to information alone. It needs experience.

Not long ago I was cleaning out some of my late wife’s things from our bathroom cabinets. It was time, I thought, to separate the things to give away from the things to save. As I did, my mind went to my five-year-old daughter and I imagined her as a teenager, holding these material things as the only connection she would have to her mother—a blow drier and a curling iron where a mother should be. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, I thought. It’s not fair that she doesn’t have her mother. 

The tears knocked on the door. Come on in, I whispered. The tears came back out, not as though bursting forth from a dam, but as the gentle flow of a river over well-worn stones. This is right, I thought. I needed this today. There is no should in grief. This is what hope looks like. 

The next day I told a friend that I had packed up some things. 

“What was that like? Did you get emotional?” She asked.

At that moment I heard the whisper of shame.

Men don’t cry. Don’t tell her. She will think less of you. 

In that moment, I ignored it. I told her what it felt like, that yes, it did make me sad and yes, I had cried while doing it. I paused for a moment, and chose to deepen the vulnerability. 

“Right now, though, even as I’m telling you this, I still feel ashamed about crying. It feels like it’s less masculine in some way. I know it’s okay for men to cry, but I still feel embarrassed for it. What do you think?” 

“I think you’re human,” she said with a smile, “and it makes me like you more.” 

Shame will out-argue you. You give shame information and it will give you evidence in return. Shame will bring to mind the exact moments when your vulnerability was used against you. But shame cannot stand up to a human face of kindness and curiosity. Shame is no match for grace, and we need faces of grace in our lives to drive away the voice of shame. 

Grace sees your tears and doesn’t look away. Grace doesn’t hide from your tears. Even male tears. Even tears that come months after the pain. Even tears buried deep within our bodies for years and years. 

There will be a day when Divine Grace will do this for us. Until that day, we all need human faces to bear witness to our pain and drive away the voice of shame. Maybe then we can become warrior-poets too, confident that we have an ally in the war against shame. Maybe then we can bless every tear that God has bottled away for us.