Thursday, December 3, 2015

Tears of Grief

Tears. I have cried an ocean of tears these last ten months. In my experience, tears of grief come in two different ways: there’s the wave of grief that convulses my entire body and the tears come flying out accompanied by cries of anguish, and then there are the quiet tears that stream down my cheeks with no other physical symptom present.
I mention my tears in my grief journal many times; here’s a sampling:
The amount of tears I have shed is truly astonishing, and it is quite cathartic. It’s interesting watching the natural process of the wave of grief wash over me. The wave hits, often out of nowhere, I wail and shed tears, the wave crests and moves on, and the tears dry on my cheeks.
Sometimes the tears start and I let them flow without making any noise, no sobbing, just sweet tears of grief overflowing my eyes and streaming down my cheeks, I don’t even wipe them away, I just let them dry there. It’s an exquisitely beautiful sensation, one I am learning to cherish. This often happens when I’m driving. 
I just looked at the front edge of the desk, where I sit as I type, and it’s spotted—those are my tears over the last weeks falling, falling. The spots are large, a half-inch in diameter. Tears are amazing; sometimes I wonder how there can be so much fluid in reserve to keep the tears rolling down my cheeks all through some of the worst moments of despair. 
This morning I went to a concert that is part of a local ‘Amadeus’ festival. A beautiful clarinet concerto moved me to tears. (Clarinet Concerto in A major, K622, Adagio) This is something I always loved about Arthur; he was easily moved to tears by a piece of music, or a poem, or a heartfelt expression of any kind. That wasn’t true for me, and Arthur always wondered how I could have a heart so closed that I couldn’t be moved by art. Now I understand. I like the feeling of tears inspired by beauty. 
I want to learn more about tears. I have never cried like I have in the last four months. The tears seem limitless, and so necessary, and so cleansing. In a meditations book a friend gave me, the author writes: “To release the pressure of grief feels almost like a phenomenon of physics—a matter of releasing internal pressure."
I love tears now. They are so beautiful, so remarkable, so healing. I don’t understand them, but I am grateful for them.
Just yesterday I read about a new book called The Topography of Tears, by Rose-Lynn Fisher, in Smithsonian Magazine. Ms Fisher likes to take photographs of things through microscopes, and one day got the idea to photograph different types of tears. The images are startling (the linked article includes images). Ms. Fisher was going through a time of change and loss, she said, and had a lot of raw material for the study. She also recruited other people’s tears for the photographs in the book.
What is startling is how different tears of grief are from other types (although the article cautions the reader against making any assumptions about the nature of tears based on the photos).
I learned from this article that there are three different types of tears: 1. Basal tears, which our eyes release continuously to keep the cornea lubricated, 2. Reflex tears, secreted in response to an irritant, like a cut onion, and 3. Psychic tears, triggered by emotions, from grief to joy. These three types of tears differ in their molecular composition, which accounts for their difference under the microscope. 
According to Wikipedia, tears produced during emotional crying have a chemical composition different from other types of tears. In particular, they contain the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.
But why do we cry emotional tears? I went online and read a variety of articles, and it seems fair to say that scientists don’t know the answer. It does seem to be one of the only behaviors that separates humans from animals; humans seem to be the only species that shed tears for emotional reasons. Evolutionary psychologists say crying probably conferred some benefit. The current hypothesis is that is a type of ‘social signal’ that alerts your group that you are in trouble. Other evidence shows that looking at photos of people with tears in their eyes evokes empathy, and that exposure to the chemicals in emotional tears decreases aggression. In other words, crying is an evolved strategy to obtain help from others in our group.
This all sounds very reasonable, and yet it doesn’t really satisfy. For one thing, I do most of my crying alone. I’m not trying to communicate anything to other people. Tears feel like they are an organic response to great suffering. As I wrote in one of my journal entries, tears feel necessary.
Suffering this great requires an audible, physical expression. Just feeling it is not enough. Grief requires you to act it out in the physical world. I understand now why people tear their hair and rend their clothes when they are grieving. Actions like these are the imperative of grief.
Lynn Fisher, the photographer, is eloquent on the nature of tears:
Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage. It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.

Further reading:

Why Humans Like to Cry, Michael Trimble, 2012


  1. I love this! I didn't know about the stress relief part but it makes sense. My philosophy has always been - let it fill up and empty out. I always feel better this way then holding back the tears. We can't hold back the tears any more than we can hold back the years. Thank you Katie for sharing this with us.

  2. Your writings are beyond beautiful. Thank you for putting this into words so eloquently

  3. Katie, thank you for this heartfelt exploration of tears. This time of year evokes so many emotions...and so many tears. Now I can add tears to my list of things to be grateful for.