The Healing Power of Tears

by Renee Fedun

  Tears come easily to me.  Perhaps it wasn’t always so.  Then again, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t cry at a story where animals were hurt or put in danger or killed.   But then, it’s okay to cry about sad stuff, heart-wrenching stories of war, human degradation and brutality, and death.  Even grown men are allowed to cry when someone dies.  An example from the movies comes to mind. Bill Murray playing a wacko army recruit in Stripes asks his fellow recruits, “Who cried when Ol’ Yeller got shot at the end?”  The motley bunch cast furtive glances at each other and sheepishly raise their hands.

  These are good tears.  They’re necessary.  But grief is not – should not be – the only impetus behind tears or the only excuse for them.   In our society – and this is truly sad – we need an excuse to cry… or maybe we just need something to get us started.  

In the past decade, my fifth in this lifetime, I have cried more than all the previous years combined.  Personal tragedy?  Yes, I’ve had my share and it accounts for a goodly volume of tears.  But more than that, I’ve finally given myself permission to cry.  I’ve finally allowed my heart to crack open and the tears to come gushing out.  

No doubt it started with the need to acknowledge the losses in my own life, but once I’d dealt with the worst of them, I moved beyond my own concerns to feel for the world.  The most poignant illustration of this (although there were others that came before – the Oklahoma City bombing, the shooting at École Polytechnique in Montreal… we can all add to the list) was 9/11.  

 When I first saw the destruction of New York’s twin towers on television I watched with disbelief and dispassion.  It was surreal – like another Hollywood depiction of death and destruction.  But as the energy of the pain and horror experienced by an entire continent began to seep into the atmosphere, my disinterest turned to grief.  I sobbed for hours, even though I had no personal connection to anyone who had been in or near the arena of destruction.  My tears, I finally realized, were the welling up and release of a tsunami of emotions surging up inside all of us.  For those who had lost loved ones the pain was unbearable.  The enormity of the horror unleashed by hatred and fanaticism struck them most forcibly, but no caring human being was left unmoved.

I believe that our collective tears helped to dissipate some of this tidal wave of pain.  We drew the suffering into ourselves and released it.  A profound detoxification took place – of the planet.  We might have chosen to respond otherwise, as some did, with anger and a desire for vengeance. But in a world overwhelmed by all manner of strife and environmental destruction on a global scale, could we afford to do that?  Pile more onto the heap?  We chose our response, and it was one of compassion, an emotion of profound spiritual significance.

It may sound arrogant to some.  “How can your tears alleviate my grief at the untimely and horrible death of my loved one?” they might ask.  I would answer, humbly, that the pain may be no less intense, but something will have shifted.  Ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, we have all become lighter.  And we remember that we are connected.  We may not know the people who suffered the greatest losses, we might not even like them if we knew them, but we’re connected to them.  Always have been.  If you believe, as I do, that we are all one, that the dividing lines between individuals are all of our own making, then there’s no question that we feel each other’s pain, and can help each other lessen the load.   By demonstrating compassion – and what more visible demonstration could there be than tears – we encourage others to respond in kind.

North American society gives a limited interpretation and a limited scope to adult tears.  For most, tears mean grief.  Their job: to release sadness.  As a child I subscribed to this theory.  You cried only when you were unhappy.  I was extremely perplexed then to see my grandfather crying when his brother – from whom he had been separated for almost 20 years – stepped off the plane.  When I asked my mother why Opa was crying, she replied that he was happy. As if that explained anything.  It made no sense to me at all.

 It was many years later that I came to understand.  But I also came to realize that this wasn’t the whole story.  In my child wisdom I had sensed that my grandfather’s emotions were complex; maybe that’s why my mother’s answer didn’t serve.  Certainly there was the joy of reunion, but there were in equal measure the sadness of lost years and the simple release of emotions so long pent-up.  Perhaps my grandfather was giving vent to the grief of a lifetime.

 I’m fortunate that I come from a family where tears are not discouraged.  Mind you, they are not encouraged either.  And when we cry we limit our tears to the most intense moments – of sadness.  But I would suggest that tears can and should accompany moments of great joy, unbounded delight, intense gratitude and pure bliss.  (Our society does look kindly upon mothers crying at their daughters’ weddings, but this is may be as far as our indulgence will go.)

When I told him I was writing an article about tears, a wise and sweet friend who counseled me for many years offered these words of encouragement:  In The Lives of the Saints, a scholarly work, the tears of the saints represent a profound sense of coming home.  That’s it, I thought.  This is what tears do for me, for those of us who are willing to spill everything with our tears.  They reconnect us with our deepest self. They bring us home.

    A less-than-satisfactory Ukrainian Catholic upbringing had led me to forsake the church.  I never imagined myself going back. I had chosen a different spirituality.  One early Sunday morning several years ago, I was cycling through a residential neighbourhood on my way to a friend’s home when my bicycle chain got hopelessly caught in the derailleur. I couldn’t get the tires to budge.  What to do?  There was no pay phone around but the church down the street was open.  I walked into St. John’s Anglican Church in West Toronto and asked the minister if I could use his phone.  Having made my call I sat down at the back of the church, just as the service was starting, to await the arrival of my friends. I promptly burst into tears.  This, I realized, was a sign, one that I should not ignore.  

  Still, it took six months before I finally made it back to that church.    Many Sundays were taken up with other pursuits. But just about every time I did attend the church, I cried.  They were almost never tears of sadness, although one might say that there’s always a bit of sadness mixed in with other strong emotions, especially when tears are the end result.  Mostly they were tears of recognition. Tears of coming home.  I would hear a sermon that struck a chord or certain phrases in the liturgy worked their magic upon me.  In the beginning, I tried to hide the tears but I soon gave up on that, realizing that they were my gift to the congregation.  Many of my fellow parishioners remained perplexed but the minister understood that this was my bliss, my response to the sacred mystery.  After one service, early on in my visits, he asked me how I was doing.  Rather sheepishly, I responded, “Oh, crying as usual.”  He smiled and said that was just fine.  

  Too often, not only do we hide our tears, we try to forget or discount them.  “I was tired.”  “I was sick.”  “It’s just a passing phase.” We make up excuses or express discomfort, instead of acknowledging our tears and being grateful for them.  Like it or not, they are important.   They have something to tell us, often something profound and uplifting.  They’re not the downer we often imagine them to be.  Rather, they’re sparkling droplets of pure elemental water – with a message.   We need to welcome them.  

  Men might say that women can easily turn on the “waterworks”.  They may even see it as our prerogative (as long as we don’t overdo it) as emotional creatures.  I would argue that more and more women, particularly those who have penetrated the historically masculine domains of business, industry and government – and need to keep everything under control – are losing touch with the feeling side of themselves and forgetting how to cry.  For one thing, tears need time.  They need space.  They require stillness.  Of course, there are the tears of frustration at having five million things to do, no time in which to do them and no cooperation from family or co-workers.  These may offer temporary relief but they don’t begin to address the deep-seated need to completely let go.  

  The rise in popularity of massage clinics, complementary therapies of all kinds, yoga classes and other activities that release stress underlines this desperate need.  Do we go for yoga or massage to cry?  I would guess that most don’t.  It would be too embarrassing.   But, alternative healing modalities are powerful precisely because they trigger the body’s (and mind’s) own healing impulses. The therapy itself is a release, but the tears that may accompany it enable the healing to go deeper.  Although bodywork of any kind is wonderful, its therapeutic benefits cannot compare with what it unleashes in us.  It kick-starts the healing, and tears often provide the vehicle.

  I would argue that the expression “Time heals all wounds” is a bit misleading.  It’s not the passage of time that heals, but the fact that as time passes the healing energies of our body or mind or spirit can shift into gear… if we allow them. Giving them time is critical.  So too with tears.  We need to give them time – time to percolate, time to surface.  And then we need time to recover; heartfelt crying is an exhausting experience.  Nothing wrong with a quick trickle here and there, but it doesn’t have the profound effect of a dam bursting or a river overflowing.  I don’t mean to suggest that only deep wracking sobs will do it.  Some of the most transformative moments I’ve experienced came when I cried peacefully, quietly, out of great joy or deep compassion.  I emerged from the experience feeling that I had done “good work”.  I was cleansed.  

   Our tears are a powerful tool for healing, a gift given to all of us – if only we would accept it. Let’s allow tears to serve us, in the multitude of ways they were meant to do.  Let them teach us to surrender and allow emotion to happen.  Many people will be embarrassed, some will be alarmed, maybe some will be intrigued.  Maybe they’ll ask “Why are you crying?” and genuinely want to know the answer.  Imagine this as the opening to a rich, satisfying way of relating, of communicating, of connecting

Renee Fedun
Writer, Yoga Teacher, Life Long Student