At my mother’s memorial service, the wonderful Reverend Pam Werntz gave the homily. One of my favorite things that she talked about was the importance of tears. She talked about tears as a kind of eighth sacrament, as an outward sign of grace, and — amid the pain of death — as a sign of life.

(Emmanuel Church, where Mom’s service was held, and where many tears were shed.)

The excellent book I’ve been reading, On Grief and Grieving by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, touches on the importance of tears also:

Tears are one of the many ways we release our sadness, one of our many wondrous built-in healing mechanisms. Unfortunately, too often we try to stop this necessary and primal release of our emotions … The worst thing you can do is to stop short of really letting it out. Uncried tears have a way of filling the well of sadness even more deeply. If you have a half hour of crying to do, don’t stop at twenty minutes. It will stop on its own. If you cry til your last tear, you will feel released. 

I’ve tried to take this advice to heart as I move forward in my life without my Mom. Last night at the dinner table, sort of without warning, I experienced one of these seismic shocks — Oh my God, she’s actually gone — followed by a huge wave of overwhelming sadness. Images of my Mom in life, illness and death began to haunt me relentlessly. I told Tyler how I was feeling and then I tried to continue to eat the last of my salad and drink the last of my beer. Nope: not happening. The wave started to engulf me and I excused myself from the table, closed our bedroom door, and lost it for about twenty minutes.

There it was again: the pain that levels me every time.

Not to be gross, but needing to cry about this is (for me) like needing to vomit. It’s not something I’m in charge of.

Unconsciously, I think I’ve started to look for opportunities in my day — where I don’t have to teach, rehearse, hang out with friends or commute in public — for crying. And I don’t just mean a little choking up when I’m talking to a friend. That happens. That’s fine. But regular daily life has no space for the kind of crying I need to do. For me, it’s important that I be alone. I send my husband out of the room and get a small bath towel. This ain’t no run-of-the-mill heartbreak.

I think crying might be one of the biggest things that freaks people about about grievers. If I say something to her, she might …. CRY!! And it’s true — she might. Once I learned my lesson about saying something, I’ve seen that this is the case. I offered my condolences to a colleague the first time I saw her in person, several months after her husband’s death. She immediately choked up and could barely talk. Already, this has happened to me. A friend’s expression of caring can touch you and remind you how profound your loss is. And it’s bittersweet.

One of my best friends lost her beloved, wild, Texas-cowboy partner to a heart attack when he was very young.  Two years later, she was buying a round of whiskey shots for everyone at my wedding after-party. Impulsively, and because it was true, I turned to her and said, “You know, he would have loved this toast.” We talked about him often, so it seemed right to mention him then. To my surprise, my friend broke down and sobbed hysterically into my shoulder for ten minutes in the middle of the bar. While I felt a little bit bad, mostly, I realized that the sadness was always with her. And right then, she needed to let it out.

Amazingly, crying is not something that needs to be stopped or fixed. It is an act of self-healing. How amazing is that? I never thought about it this way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cry some more.

Photo by Jack McCabe.