I admit it. I had a good cry this past week. Despite my resolve to remain dry-eyed and smiling as I said good-bye to my daughter and granddaughter, I was faltering. My eyes began to well up with tears, and I struggled to keep from bursting into tears in front of my 13 month-old granddaughter. Elinor and I had agreed to keep our good-byes “happy” so that Flora, attentive to the moods of the adults around her, would not be upset.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Elinor said as she hugged me, “we’ll be back in December.” December? At the rate my granddaughter is growing and changing, I’ll have missed out on dozens of her new discoveries and developments. I nodded and put on a brave smile. Yes, December, I thought, as I nodded in agreement. It really wasn’t too far off, was it?
I waved good-bye one last time as I watched mother and daughter disappear through the security checkpoint and head for the departure gate. I left the terminal and headed for the parking lot, trying to remember where I’d left my car. I found it after a few minutes of looking, unlocked the door and slid into the seat, glancing at the empty toddler’s car seat behind me. That’s when I burst into tears, sobbing like a baby for several minutes before I regained enough composure to drive home. But as I walked into my house and saw the remains of Flora’s morning play, toys scattered across the living room carpet, my tears began again. It was several hours later before I had the heart to pack the toys away.
Why do we cry? A 2006 article in the Scientific American explored the reasons behind our tears (December-January, pp. 44-51). Other animals howl in distress, but although we howl too–think of the husky bawl of a newborn baby announcing her arrival into the world—what makes us different are the tears that accompany our cries. Not only that, it’s not just sorrow or pain that can move us to tears. We cry even in moments of joy.
According to Chip Walter, author of the article, there are many reasons we cry, from simple signals of distress to mysterious and sophisticated forms of communication with one another. Tears express powerful emotions that sometimes escape our words. “Tears,” Walter writes, “take us where syntax and syllables cannot. Without them, we would not be human” (p. 51).
We actually shed three kinds of tears. In addition to the emotional ones, there are two others: basal and reflex. Basal tears bathe our eyes when we blink. Reflex tears occur if we get poked in the eyes or peel a few onions. Emotional tears, however, are the most complex. A good cry, the kind that makes you feel better, is one of the body’s important defense mechanisms. According to Dr. William Frey, a researcher at the St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center in Minnesota, tears that come from emotion contain chemicals the body builds up during stress or nervous tension. Crying rids us of those chemicals.
Remember the 1978 hit song, “Don’t Cry Out Loud?” It wasn’t very good advice as it turns out. Written by Peter Allen and Carole Sager and sung by Melissa Manchester, the song reflected Allen’s own attitude about crying. He apparently learned from his mother to “always put your best face on” after his father committed suicide when he was fourteen.
Keeping emotions bottled up inside can have deleterious effects on our health. In studies of breast cancer patients, those who suppressed emotions suffered more emotional distress than patients who were more emotionally expressive. The researchers suggested that it was essential to encourage the expression of negative and positive emotions (Health Communication, vol. 18, no. 3, Jan. 205, pp. 201-215).
Tears, however, may not always come when we think they should. Not being able to cry does not necessarily suggest an inability to express emotions. In the first stages of a cancer diagnosis, for example, we may cry easily and often. It’s a shock; we’re overwhelmed and fearful. But as we come to terms with our illness, perspectives can shift, and as they do, so do our needs and the ways in which we find release or comfort.
Joan O’Brien, who lost her battle with cancer after fourteen years questioned why she wasn’t crying her eyes out when she learned she had only a few months to live. “I am trying to figure out why,” she wrote in her book, The Quilt of My Life, published by her family in 2009 after her death. “Is it good or bad, I don’t know… When my mother died, “I cried for hours and probably for days afterwards… Perhaps the reason is that I have faith,” she concluded. “There is no reason for crying in this case… in writing this I have been able to figure out what I could not before.”
There may be times, as in Joan’s case, when tears no longer serve us as they once did, and we take solace in prayer, in faith or spirituality to help navigate those darker times. But don’t fret if you feel like crying from time to time. Given the benefits of tears, we might do better to follow the lead of singer Johnnie Ray, whose 1952 hit tune, “Cry,” composed well before the scientific data was in, suggested that having a good cry now and then might help us feel better.
If your sweetheart sends a letter of goodbye
It’s no secret you’ll feel better if you cry…
If your heartaches seem to hang around too long
And your blues keep getting bluer with each song
Remember sunshine can be found behind the cloudy skies
So let your hair down and go right on and cry.
When is the last time you were moved to tears? How has a good cry helped you navigate difficult times? Have you moved beyond the need to cry and found relief or solace in other ways? Write about tears, about emotion, about the last time you felt like having a good cry. And one other thing: don’t be alarmed if a few tears appear unexpectedly as you write. Writing as a way of healing is a process of translating emotions into words, of releasing old sorrows, pain or heartache. Tears are a natural accompaniment. “So let your hair down and go right on and cry…”