If ever there were a time you'd expect to cry, it's after the death of a loved one or other significant loss. You're sad as hell, and everyone around you is weeping, so you probably should too, right?
For some, yes, their tears could fill the deepest canyon. But for others, their tears are like a sneeze that won't come. Though they may feel the precursing sadness--and perhaps a pit in their stomach and a lump in their throat-- their eyes remain dry.
We receive a lot of questions about crying--or rather--not crying after a loss. People want to know, why don't I cry when someone dies? Though there are many variations on this question, they usually fall under one of two categories.
Category # 1: I'm usually a crier, but I can't cry now. What gives?
Many people are distressed at not being able to cry because they typically can and do cry when something upsetting happens. However, now that something truly devastating has happened, they suddenly find themselves cut off from a means of emotional expression that usually seems second nature.
Though this is a common experience, it's normal for a person to worry when something deviates far from their baseline (i.e., what they're used to). So, if this describes you, we've written about the experience of "feeling nothing" here and discussed why a person might feel numb after a loss here.
Category #2: Even though I'm not a crier, I expected loss to make me cry, and it hasn't.
For many other people, their baseline is that they hardly ever cry, if at all. Some people rarely shed tears, and they don't know why. Others admit they avoid it because it makes them feel ashamed or embarrassed. This shouldn't be surprising when you consider how many children are raised to believe tears are weak, wrong, bothersome, or attention-seeking.
It's not okay that we as a society have made many people feel ashamed of a natural human experience like crying--but we have. And knowing this is the case, it's then equally unfair that we turn around and tell grieving people that if they're not openly weeping, they're somehow doing grief wrong. So we're mainly here to say it is okay to cry, and it's also okay not to cry if you can't or don't want to.
We aren't saying that crying isn't a helpful outlet for many people--on the contrary--it certainly has its potential benefits, and if you're curious about those, a Google search will turn up many articles. Instead, we want to reassure those who aren't crying that it's okay. Crying isn't a required step in grieving a loss; it is not a measure of how much you love the person who died, and you can still grieve healthily even if the tears don't flow.
But don't grievers need to "let it out"?
People often tell grievers that they "need to let their emotions out" by crying, which sets up the expectation that they would feel better if only their tears would flow. As a result, those who can't cry may worry they don't have access to a necessary emotional release valve. But, it turns out that the idea that crying is some essential form of catharsis during emotional times isn't entirely accurate.
Crying does have self-soothing benefits; it's thought to release oxytocin and other helpful pain and stress-reducing hormones. But, crying is only one of many activities that can help in this way. Other activities that may have similar effects include physical and emotional intimacy, bonding with a pet, massage, music, exercise, artistic expression, meditation, etc. And with regards to emotional expression, there are countless ways beyond crying that people express their emotions (journaling, art, talking, etc.).
The most important thing is that a person has tools for self-soothing, stress relief, and emotional expression, but those tools do not need to include crying to be healthy.
An important catch: non-criers may receive less support
I think it's important to note that scientists don't really know why people cry emotional tears. Ultimately, there are many theories and many potential explanations. But one pretty solid theory about why people cry is that tears signal to others that the person crying is experiencing distress and needs help.
Dating back to our baby days, we used crying as a way to get our needs met. As adults, tears help us send SOS signals to others that we need support. So, in this regard, non-criers may be at a disadvantage after experiencing loss because they might not get the help that others receive.
Though the grieving person may be experiencing a hurricane of thoughts, emotions, and physical responses on the inside, their outside looks calm. So well-intentioned family and friends may triage their support and assistance away from them towards others who are more outwardly struggling.
Those who don't cry after a loss may also worry that not crying will signal that they're doing fine or aren't that bothered. And, not to scare you, but this is a legitimate concern. People often judge or stigmatize grief expression that looks different from what they expected (see our discussion on disenfranchised grief). Perhaps worse than the judgments of others is self-stigma, as the grieving person themselves may wonder if not being able to cry means something's wrong with them or if they're grieving less than they should (it doesn't).
So all this being said, if you feel that your lack of tears is impacting the support and care you're getting, you may need to deliberately tell people how you feel (instead of showing them). If you don't feel comfortable doing this, another option is to seek out more formal outlets for support, like a support group or therapist.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: