Crying In Public (aka sometimes socks are sad)

Sometimes you are in a store and you start to cry, uncontrollably.  A small child standing nearby says to her mom “why is that lady crying”, which only makes you cry harder.  You then look at your very full cart, assessing how quickly you can get out of the store.   You realize you can’t possibly face the check out line.  You abandon your cart, leave the store, and feel like you’re losing your mind.

And when I say you I mean me.  And when I say sometimes I mean this past December and when I say a store I mean the Target in Towson, Maryland . . .in the sock aisle.   Let me explain . . .

In the middle of this past summer my friend’s mom was diagnosed with cancer.  Not just any friend, but one of my best friends.  We grew up together.  We went to college together.  She sang at my dad’s funeral.  I was maid of honor in her wedding.  She is one of those friends that makes you realize the limitations of language – a friend who is like family, and clearly there should be a word for that.  Her mom was one of those moms everyone loved.  Her house was your house.  When you wanted to spend the night, the answer was always yes.  When you wanted to get pizza and watch movies the answer was always yes.  You could always tell her the truth.  She was always there, always supportive, like family.

And then she had cancer.  Just like that.  Two months and it was too late.  September brought hospice and a week later she died.

When she was first diagnosed I took her a care basket to the hospital filled with anything to make the hospital more comfortable – socks and magazines, chapstick and a pillow.  The care basket was July.  The funeral was September.  It was December that I walked into the same Target where I created that care basket.  I had a long list of things I needed.  I was in a rush.  It was the holidays.  I was almost done shopping when I walked into the sock aisle because I needed tights.  Gray tights.  I scanned the sock aisle and I froze.  I was staring at the same sock display I had stood in front of months before, trying to pick out hospital care-package socks.  Same display, same socks.  It was suddenly completely surreal.  All that had happened since then hit me at once – there was cancer but there had been hope, the surgery and then no hope, then hospice and the funeral, then life again.  It felt impossible that all that had happened and somehow those same stupid, ugly neon socks were still there.  She was gone and the same socks were still on the shelf.  So I did the only thing I could do.  I started to cry.  In Target.  In the sock aisle.  During the holidays.

Now, you may be thinking, isn’t this woman a mental health professional?!?  She is having meltdowns in public places?  And she is posting about it?  On the internet?  Is she nuts?  Yes, yes, yes, yes, and NO.  Crying in public does not make me nuts, or you nuts, or any body else nuts.  And neither does talking about it

Why am I posting about this?  Because the best of us cry, and sometimes we do it in public.  It doesn’t do any good to keep our big mouths shut about it, because that just creates the same culture of hiding our grief that has caused so many people to feel the need to stifle their emotions.  It reinforces a culture that causes us to fear the possibility of shedding a tear in front of others.  It breeds our need to avoid certain places that we worry will cause us to well up with tears, even when it is somewhere we may really want to go or need to go.  It exacerbates our feelings of shame and embarrassment about expressing our grief.  Let’s get a few things straight:

*Crying is normal.
*Emotions are good (even the bad ones).
*Everybody cries sometimes.
*Most people have cried in public.
*Crying in public doesn’t mean you’re crazy.
*Sometimes crying in public, once you get over feeling mortified, can be liberating.

Don’t believe me on that last one?  Check out Jillian Lauren’s great article on Huffington Post, Crying in Public: Is it Really a Problem?  in which she embraces her own experiences with tears in cafés.  Need more proof that people are crying in public left and right, and it isn’t all that bad?  Check out the New York Times Opinionator post by Melissa Febos, Look At Me, I’m Crying.

The bottom line is that when we are grieving tear triggers can be anywhere.  We can’t always plan for what will set off our emotions.  It can be a song playing in the elevator, a family you see playing in the park, a comment from a co-worker, or the sock aisle at Target.  It sucks, it can be embarrassing, and it reminds us that we aren’t always as in control as we wish we were.  We could pretend like it is never an issue, but if we don’t face the reality that tears will sometimes show up without invitation we will only be more flustered and panicked when it happens.

At WYG we always support embracing emotions rather than suppressing them.  I would love to say when these situations arise take a time-out from life, grab your journal, and start sorting through some of those emotions.  That being said, we have real jobs and real lives and know that you sometimes have to get through the work-day or the grocery list and tears aren’t an option.  You need to get the crisis under control in the short-term.   So how do you cope when you are caught off guard by a mini-meltdown?

Crying In Public Like a Rockstar: tips and tricks

1)  Anticipate (if you can).  This is a big if.  As mentioned above, these triggers often catch us off guard.  But if you know something may be a trigger for you and you don’t want to end up with mascara streaming down you face, make a plan to manage your environment.  This may be an escape plan, or a friend you are going to lean on, or straight up avoidance.  I lost my dad.  Father-daughter dances at weddings are a sob-fest for me and I know it.  So what do I do?  Shamelessly head to the bathroom as soon as a father-daughter dance is about to start.

2)  Don’t panic.  Easier said than done, I know.  When you can feel yourself starting to well-up in front of your co-workers or your child’s teacher it is hard not to panic.  But panic can actually make the tears come faster and more forcefully.  When you notice the feeling that you may cry try to slow things down.  Notice the feeling, take a breath, and move on to some of the next steps.  It is important to note that this is not about tensing up to avoid the tears, but noticing the feeling of tears coming, acknowledging and accepting it, and starting some relaxation techniques to calm down and slow the tears down.

3)  Breathe.  Seriously, we say it all the time because it is true.  Well timed deep breathing is a tried and true technique for controlling the tears until you get somewhere you feel more comfortable.  Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths through your nose and into your abdomen.  Focus as intently as you can on the breaths and relaxing your face and shoulders.  Reducing some of the physical tension you are feeling can help ease the tears.  Focusing on your breathing and counting your breaths can also serve as a distraction.

4)  Take a step back.  Along with noticing your breath, notice what has triggered this emotion.  This can be really hard to do in the moment, but very effective in the long-term.  Identifying and considering the thoughts behind your emotions can help you better understand your grief.  My Target-sock-meltdown had nothing to do with socks.  The social worker in me forced myself to breathe and reflect in that moment.  It clearly wasn’t about the socks.  It was about so many other things, things I had been avoiding because I had been too busy trying to support my friend.

5)   Go somewhere private.  If you are around friends, family or colleagues, make up whatever excuse you need – you need to use the bathroom, make a phone call, throw up, whatever.   Then book-it to a private spot.  Let’s be honest, the bathroom is usually a surefire place to get some alone time.  You will not be the first or last person to shed some tears in a bathroom stall.  Your office, car, or any old empty room always works.

6)  Go to your “happy place”.  I know, I know, this sounds totally cliché.  But when we are trying to calm down, visualization exercises can really help ease anxiety and shift our mood.  How do you do it?  Keep up those deep breaths.  Concentrate on them and begin counting them.  Imagine yourself somewhere calm and peaceful – a quiet beach, a stream in the woods, or even just a room that you feel at peace in.  Imagine yourself in whatever your happy place may be.  Focus on imagining the sights, sounds, and smells.

7)  Smile.  The clichés just keep coming, but this one is legit too!  Smiling, even when you don’t mean it, has been linked to the release of endorphins and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that boosts our mood).  Forcing yourself to smile can actually make you feel a little more like smiling (or, at the very least, a little less like crying).  It has to be a big smile though, that shows your teeth and uses your cheeks.  Check out more about smiling here if you’re interested.

8)  Be honest.  If you start to cry in front of friends, co-workers, or family they may want to support you (heck, sometimes strangers will even start offering support!).  If you want their support, tell them.  If you just want to be alone, tell them.  Because we all work so hard to avoid emotions we don’t always know how to support each other.  So you need to tell people what you need.  If someone says something really dumb when they are trying to help (which inevitably someone will) try not to hold it against them.

9)  Don’t worry what people think.  If people see you cry, worrying about what they are thinking can just make you more upset.  If you find yourself worrying about what other people think, use some good old-fashioned self talk – everyone cries, everyone has gotten emotional in public, tears are normal and natural, those who care about me will understand and support me.   If you are surrounded by strangers, even better!  Remind yourself of all of the above, and then also add that you will never see these people again, so who cares what they think!  In fact, seeing you cry in public may even make them feel a little more normal next time they get emotional in public.  So think of it as your good deed for the day!

10)  Play some happy music.  We just posted on music as something that can have a real impact on your mood.  Keep a playlist or CD of songs that cheer you up handy on your phone, computer, mp3 player, in your car, etc. Play to it when you need to cheer up and pull yourself together.  Taking a break and listening to a happy song can sometimes be enough to regroup, wipe your tears, and go back to working, shopping, socializing, or whatever else you were doing.  Check out our grief playlist post.

11)  Make yourself pretty again.  This is not about vanity.  There is a practical purpose to wiping your tears.  Once you have regrouped, someone asking you if you’re okay or what’s wrong can be a trigger to restart the waterworks.  The less you look like you have been having a meltdown, the more confident you will feel and the less likely you are to have to field questions.  If you are one of those people who looks perfect as you shed glistening tears, grab a tissue and get back to your day.  If you are like me, getting your puffy eyes and blotchy face under control may take a little more work – cool water or a cool paper towel can help with the red puffiness, or a make-up touch up and eyedrops if you are someone who carries items in your purse.

12)  Make time to address the issue.  When you are able to stop, control, suppress or otherwise limit a cry-fest it can be tempting to avoid it forever.  But spending some time in the privacy of home thinking about, talking about, journaling about, drawing about, photographing about, singing about, or otherwise exploring whatever lead to your public tears is an important part of accepting, acknowledging, and coping with emotions.  Make sure you take some time to reflect.

13)  When all else fails, keep sunglasses on hand.

crying in public 3

Worried that your crying is not normal and your grief may have crossed into the complicated realm?  Check out our post on normal grief vs complicated grief.  Just looking for some general tips on taking care of yourself when overwhelmed by the emotions of grief?  We have a self-care post too.

Have some tips for coping with the dreaded public-meltdown?  Please share! Leave a comment.

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April 12, 2017

10 responses on "Crying In Public (aka sometimes socks are sad)"

  1. I made a gigantic fool of myself crying in public and embarrassed the TSA in the process. They were intending to take a chemical sample of my leg brace I was wearing at the time, which worked by magnet therapy and set off their hypersensitive sensors. They wanted to be sure there was nothing in there that was going to blow people up on the plane…I GUESS. But because someone in my family was killed on September 11 I lost all cohesion at the very thought that anyone in this world, even security, could think I’d do to another family what was done to mine. I couldn’t take what they were implying and burst into tears. Asked them how they could think I’d do to another family what was done to mine. Questioned why they didn’t do all this stuff earlier so maybe the person in mine could be alive and me not be going through the aftermath of weird homicide. For at least 10 minutes I was an all-out ball of uncontrolled blubbering.
    Every one of the guards looked so deeply uncomfortable it wasn’t funny – and it certainly wasn’t planned. They still had to take the sample but they let me board the plane instead of waiting 45 minutes for the test to come back positive or negative. That would’ve caused me to miss my plane and gotten me in who knows what straits if I’d had to wait that long, and I haven’t flown since then. I’m still upset that someone whose family member died bc of this nonsense is suspected along with everyone else of potential foul play and treated as if they could do to someone else what was done to their own family.
    No amount of breathing or smiling would have helped in this case but I’ll try it in others. I just hope no others make an appearance. I don’t believe I only get things I can handle. I don’t believe I “must be able to handle all of it bc God only gives you what you can handle.”
    I think I’ve done a pretty lousy job of managing losing someone to a terrorist act. Especially in the time management department. It took 18 months before I could even have a reaction to it after the initial one of disbelief and like my whole system had been shocked with 50,000 volts of electricity.

  2. Crying is awesome. I have been torturing myself the past few months trying to be strong, think positive, have gratitude and acceptance, all in the name of not crying. Trying to be someone who is “handling it well”. Even my therapist has been giving me advice on how to distract myself from crying. I have tried so hard to fight back the sadness I was wound tight as a fist and ready to explode. I was snapping at everyone, I was drinking too much, I was full of anger.
    Then one day last week, during yoga class, I asked to find acceptance, so I could stop feeling like I needed to cry all the time. The words flowed into my mind “my mother is dying” and “I am really sad about it”. And the tears flowed, yes I became “that” person in yoga class! Bawling quietly on the mat!!!
    But I finally “got” it — “acceptance” means CRYING! It means accepting I am sad and processing that and letting it out. From that moment on I decided to stop being afraid of the crying, now when I feel it coming on, I welcome it. (Okay at work I still try and hold it together lol) In my car, in front of my kids, in the morning at breakfast. Crying is awesome. I feel so much better afterwards. It lets the pain out. It means I loved someone a lot. It means I am sad, and that is beautiful. What incredible freedom and release I feel when I finally let myself cry.
    Yes it’s embarrassing, but we cry because we loved someone that deeply.

  3. Thank you for your excellent blog.
    Here’s my ‘sock story’
    https://victoriawhyte.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/my-sock-story/

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Ah thanks so much for sharing your story Victoria! Always good to know we are not alone being brought to tears by socks. Not sure if you have read enough of our articles to know this, but my dad also died of myelodysplastic syndrome! (An exclamation point seems odd to punctuate that sentence, but hey, it is what feels right and this is a grief site). I am so sad to learn of your loss of Leah but glad you found our site. Thanks for sharing your ‘sock story’ 🙂

  4. I’ve spent the last year going through so much personal hardship that you can’t make it up. I’m also very aware that many have it worse than me. That said, I’ve just been to the first social event I’ve been invited to since my life went very bad in many ways. Some very kind people who I just met invited me, and they have no idea what I am going through– I act happy and social to everyone. During the dinner party which was a very positive and much laughter filled event, a mutual friend mentioned a friend of ours who passed away from cancer. I had talked to the person who passed away just as he was given the dire news that his life was over-it was brutal. A negative subject to discuss at this happy occasion, I started to relay this brutally sad conversation and got choked up mid sentence. I had to stop talking and just look down; trying to ride it out without starting to really cry. The person I was speaking with sensed that I was struggling and became quiet, which caused the strangers around me to stare at me and it got really uncomfortable real quick. Lasted about 40 seconds and I was able to not burst out. I finally looked up and a guy across the table said “No crying on my watch”. I was mortified and embarrassed to hear that, but the friend I knew said, “We’ve lost a lot of friends”. Fortunately the couple the party was thrown for didn’t see me. I quickly composed myself and made a joke “Now back to the positive” I didn’t know what else to say. Because of what’s going on with me I’m pretty much in pieces emotionally, internally, but don’t share that with the public, only my therapist. About the crying, I just felt that I possibly was reaching out or needy. Would I have been less apt to cry publicly if my personal life wasn’t so messed up? Not real happy about what I brought to the party, but it happened.

  5. My Mom died 5 months ago of a brain tumor. In that time, I have abandoned at least 3 baskets of groceries in a store because of songs that play over the loudspeaker (seriously, what sick person thought it’d be a good idea to play “Christmas Shoes” in a public venue over the holidays….if you’ve never heard it, grab a COUPLE boxes of tissues and buckle up!). Other triggers have been the nightgown section at Kohl’s (where the nightgown my Mom was wearing when she died is now on clearance), the sugar-free candy aisle of any store (Mom was diabetic), as well as smelling her favorite soup at a Chinese restaurant. In every instance, I had to drop whatever I was doing and make a bee-line for the car, where I could unload my emotions onto my steering wheel. I always fear if I let myself explode in public, that people will think I’ve “lost it” and wonder if they should call for help (i.e. an ambulance or other emergency personnel). I became pretty skilled at “keeping my game face on” around visitors at the end of Mom’s life. Now I can barely make it through an outing without feeling like I’m about to get ambushed by something that reminds me of her. It’s like I contained it for so long, it won’t be silenced anymore, now that she’s gone.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Oh Ana,

      I feel for you!! Those things that seem like such little reminders, I can feel how connected they are to your mother. Your mother’s death was not so long ago, I think this is pretty normal. Hopefully in times these reminders will be far more tolerable, they may even become warm reminders. I wrote a post about how I look at these things now that I am many years out from the death of my mother. I’m not sure it will be helpful to you right now, but maybe just a reminder that things do get easier in time and that’s not because your moving on or forgetting but because the meaning and feelings associated with these things change.

      Eleanor

  6. For Bob: I read his comment on not wanting to play radio in car……reminds me of the day I began singing “The Falling Leaves” to my grandchildren – my husband had just passed away -( I have a habit of singing about everything) – but then I got to the last line which was..”but I miss you most of all, my darling, when autumn leaves start to fall”. I absolutely could not finish that last line and probably never will.

  7. Lista – I can definitely relate. If you felt embarrassed, as a woman, crying in the socks aisle of Target, imagine being a man and having a meltdown in a store. Happened to me…more than once. There is a stigma about men crying in public even more than women. Also, men are discouraged by our society to talk about their feelings of grief (except maybe when their favorite sports team has a “heartbreaking” loss). Fortunately, I found a counselor who kept a box of tissues within arms reach at all sessions and, later, a grief support group with a male participant who was very articulate and insightful. Another topic which you might want to blog about is crying while driving — probably at least as dangerous as driving while talking on a cell phone. I learned from experience, in the days after my partner died, not to have the radio on while driving on an interstate (where there wasn’t an opportunity to pull over). Too much of a risk of a song coming on the radio that would trigger a gusher.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      This is such an important point. If we as women feel self-conscious about our tears, I can only imagine how much worse it is as a man. Glad you found such good support. There seem to be more and more men blogging about grief, and I think it is a great trend. If you missed it, we highlighted a number of men who blog about grief here https://whatsyourgrief.com/weekend-update-february-10-2013/. I agree the car is a topic we should talk about, because I share that same experience and I know we are not alone! There is something about getting in the car that has always been a tear-trigger. I think it is often a place where we feel like we can finally release after having to work so hard to hold it together, not to mention the songs on the radio!

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