I have always been a crier. I remember flinging myself on my bed, sobbing, throughout my girlhood and teenage years, my faithful dog Maggie at my side. I remember moments of thinking the pain would never go away, and yet it did, washed clean by the fierceness of my tears. During my twenties I learned to cry alone, my quest for independence keeping my heart locked away. In my thirties I have opened up to this part of myself, loving it as gently as I could. I cry now as a witness to joy, to sorrow, to life. Sometimes I laugh at how often tears spring to my eyes. I love how easily my heart is touched while at the same time wishing I could, every now and again, keep my eyes dry. I like to think that I accept this part of myself fully but somewhere along the way, I learned the cultural shame of crying.
We shush babies when tears are the best way they know to communicate. We tell toddlers they’re okay when they’re not. We distract them so they don’t feel their pain, or sorrow, or anger. We teach them to swallow their tears, keep a stiff upper lip, and take it on the chin. We do this because we are not comfortable enough with our own tears to hold space for another’s. We shut down a part of ourselves, a part of our children, that is as important as laughter. We force our bodies to hold onto our pain, deluding ourselves into believing we are stronger for not crying.
A week and a half ago I bruised the bone under my knee so badly that it fractured. A “micro-fracture” the doctor called it. So tiny the x-rays didn’t see it, but the MRI showed fluid when it should have shown bone. This tiny split in something I thought of as solid, this space that was suddenly wet when it should have been dry, brought up deep grief that had my mind running in loops trying to figure it out. Sure, I cried from frustration, I cried from physical pain, but every now and then something deep in my knee would shift, a wave of trauma would wash through me and I would find myself wracked with sobs, not knowing why. My grief felt old and huge, and I couldn’t hold it in, couldn’t explain it away.
My experiences with different physical modalities taught me long ago that memory is stored in the body. A chiropractic adjustment when I was rebuilding my marriage would send me spinning into grief and anger. Massage and reiki have both brought me the release of tears. But my knee? My KNEE? How could the pain of childhood violation, my internalization of my mother’s sadness, memories of betrayal and shame be living in my knee? I struggled to stay present, to allow the tears to simply be, to keep my mind from judging. My husband looked on with concern and I didn’t know how to explain that it wasn’t pain at all. It was memory being released from bone.
I will not shush my daughter, or tell her she’s okay when she cries. I will not distract her. I don’t want her to learn that her tears are shameful and need to be sent underground. I want to spare her my desire to turn to food when feelings threaten to overwhelm. As hard as it can be for me to hear her cry, I am always with her, touching her gently, talking her through it, holding myself wide open for the feelings she needs to release.* I watched her confusion today as someone worked madly to distract her from her tears. I let it go on too long for fear of offending. She was angry with me afterward and we talked through that too.
My fractured bone is healing. I imagine the fluid that carried my memories to me being reabsorbed. I know I have more work to do, more tears to shed in this lifetime. I hope to honor them, to honor my journey towards wholeness and the part they play. To borrow from the thoughtful and inspiring Bruce at Privilege of Parenting, I dedicate today to allowing tears – to staying present with our difficult feelings and bathing in their healing power – in service of ourselves and all of our collective children.
* For more information on how to support a child’s emotional release through crying, click here to go to Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting Institute (articles page) or read her book Tears and Tantrums.