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Grieving, Tears and Healing

woman in mourning
Feeling sad? Grieving a loss? Anticipating a death? Sit yourself down, give yourself a hug and let the tears and healing begin.
Shedding tears is a uniquely human response to emotional distress, sadness being the most typical emotion leading to tears. And sadness is the emotion almost universally associated with grief…
Unfortunately, people are often afraid of crying. Among men in many Western societies, crying is seen as a sign of weakness. Boys are told, “Big boys don’t cry,” or, “Crying is for girls.”
Both men and women often associate crying with the loss of control. Have you ever heard someone say, “If I start crying, I will never stop?”
No one who reaches adulthood escapes loss. You grieve deaths, losses through divorce, job loss, and loss through ill health. Furthermore, you can find yourself grieving in anticipation of any of these, a sort of “grieving in advance.” And with the grief comes tears and with tears comes healing.
The funeral is the one public event where it is socially acceptable to cry. Even those “manly” beings who pride themselves on never crying often shed a few tears at funerals.
“Weeping is cleansing.” “Tears will wash away your sorrows.” Such admonitions have been around for centuries. More recently, I have heard the statement, “Sorrow needs to be metabolized.” But is there a biological basis for any of this?
Biochemist Dr. William Frey, noting that exhaling urinating defecating and sweating all release toxic substances from the body, concluded that tears serve a similar function of releasing toxins. He found that tears induced by stress have a higher protein content than tears induced by an irritant such as peeling onions. His research suggested that tears help the body to get rid of the harmful stress-induced chemicals.
Other research found that people with stress-induced disorders were more likely than healthy people to regard crying as a sign of weakness or loss of control. We can only speculate that their inability to let themselves cry contributed to the buildup of stress hormones, the weakening of their bodies’ immune systems, and ultimately manifested in stress-induced disorders.
Psychologists have argued for a long time that weeping is an important part of the healing process. Psychologically, weeping involves confronting your grief. You feel good after “a good cry.” It seems that underlying the psychological healing is a reduction in stress hormone load. No wonder it feels good afterwards!

If you are one of those who find it difficult to shed tears in times of emotional distress, try giving yourself private times just to focus on your sadness. Let yourself feel the grief and whatever other emotions come up. That may help the tears of healing to come.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide.

4 comments to Grieving, Tears and Healing

  • Durelle Sanderson

    I am not surprised to read that research has shown that crying divests the body of toxins. However, crying alone, although therapeutic and necessary, is not the only coping mechanism associated with grieving. Denial, belligerency, anger, behvioural changes inconsistent with personality etc. all are manifestations of the grieving process. I personally have wept to the point where there are no tears left to go on crying with, over the loss of a cherished loved one. As a post-grad student in cancer therapy technology I have witnessed the wrenching of hearts as infants and young children succumed to the ravishes of their disease. The heart wrenching grief of distraught parents and grandparents who often say they couldn’t ask that their loved one would go on for another day given the magnitude of pain and suffering they had to endure even as they themselves wondered how they would go on without them. I firmly believe we recover from our acute grief but I don’t think for a momemnt that we ever fully escape our sorrow. Perhaps that is a good thing, I don’t know. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

  • Su Walker

    Crying is an explicit response to yourself. I believe it is for the most part a way we communicate to ourselves more than others. It’s a heightened extreme version of pain, anger, joy, or sadness. Just part of the process not the answer by any means – but absolutely necessary to validate your feelings to yourself. There is no denial in it.

  • DEN

    Good day to you doctor Neill,
    I think I’m one of them. I become very emotional specially now after 5 months of being abused by my spouse. I said to my husband I already forgive you but I can’t forget the trauma, pain, hurt. Most of the time I feel sad crying! My husband he had an issue I mean anger problem. After what happened he really feel guilty until now. We both want to save our marriage but I change a lot. I feel like one day I’m happy,one day I’m so sad, depressed and crying! Dr.Neil Can you please give me some advice? I’m a happy person,but when I look at myself in the mirror I am a very different person. Need your help! Thanks

  • Beth

    My sister passed away suddenly from a pulmonary em bolus sudden cardiac death on Aug. 10, 2013. She just turned 49 years old. She was my best friend and only support with helping with our mom. It was she and I. She and I looked so much alike people couldn’t tell us apart . I am 2 years older and when she died, my whole life fell apart. We were RNs at the same hospital and were so close. Now it’s just Mom and I. I cry and cry and do a grief journal and all the tears don’t even help. I get angry and mad and then cry. She is gone and I miss her so much. She was a awesome person that really taught me what true love means, she gave love away like chocolate. I miss her to the depths of my soul and nothing can stop or ease the pain. It’s only been 6 weeks but I feel the loss so deep. People tell me it will get better but I doubt it. I love my baby sis and miss her so much.

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