Grief and Shame

“…There has been little attention paid to the[sic] inhibitory functions of shame in the literature on death and mourning.”

From the Article “Shame” by Jeffery Kauffman, published in Encyclopedia of Death And Dying edited by Glennys Howarth and Oliver Leaman

 

In February of 2016 my mother died. It was my first experience with profound loss, and thus my first experience with grief. Sure, I’d felt sadness and loss when relationships ended, or when a period of my life came to a close, but I’d never experienced anything like the grief I felt with my mom’s death.

I could (and will) write about many of my experiences with grief, but I’m going to focus on the link I experienced between grief and shame. I’m not going to talk about shame related to the cause of my mother’s death (although I could), or feelings of shame related to my inability to help or save her (yep, could talk a lot about that too, and if you’re particularly interested in reading pieces about these kinds of shame you can find them here and here). I’m going to talk about something that I wasn’t expecting about grief: that it brought me face-to-face with my own feelings of shortcomings and shame, some of which were buried deep.

After the first wave of grief (the days and weeks that felt strange and surreal, like I was caught in a reality distortion field) began to subside, I felt open, raw, and vulnerable in ways I never had before–which is saying something, because I’m a very emotional and vulnerable person to begin with.

Now I’m going to say something about those days which may seem strange–although they were incredibly painful and difficult, there was also a profound sweetness to them. Sounds weird, but go with me for a sec. A friend of mine posted this image on Facebook:

broken-heart-smalls

This lovely piece is by Amber Ibarreche. You can find more of her stuff at her shop.

Now, my only quibble with this is that I think it would be more accurate to say “My heart is broken and that crack has created more space and so it also feels more open which is both painful and good.” But that is way less catchy. My grief made me more open to all the feelings, not just the sad ones. It also exposed some feelings I wasn’t aware I was harboring. This is where we get to the shame.

During that period I realized I was carrying around shame about my career, my sexuality, my finances, my gender, my ability to be a good partner, and (and here’s the real kicker) about my grief itself. How did I realize I was harboring shame about these things? Because I’d be having a conversation with my husband and all of a sudden I would find myself crying uncontrollably. Like, you’re having a hard time breathing and your voice jumps about 8 octaves you feel like you might vomit. So you shut your mouth and try to master your emotions and stop crying, but it’s just not happening.

“Hmmm,” I’d think when that happened, “there seems to be something here that I have strong feelings about.” I’d then try to dig a little deeper to figure out why I was weeping so profusely, and the answer was inevitably that I was feeling  deficient and ashamed about myself in relation to what we were talking about. It happened so often that I started laughing (but while also sobbing) about it. And I jokingly dubbed 2016 the Year of Shame.

But here’s the thing about talking about shame; In my experience, talking about shame is like exposing a vampire to sunlight. It weakens and eventually kills it. Even the act of simply identifying and naming the shame lessens it’s power, because shame can only control you if it is able to isolate and silence you.

The link I felt between grief and shame was so profound that I was surprised to find very little written about it when I searched the internets. The little I did find was more about the shame associated with survivor’s guilt than the effect of grief on uncovering one’s own feelings of shame related to their character and life choices. I did, however, find one article that mentioned the phenomenon I had experienced. It listed 7 “grief reactions” that prompt shame. I resonated with all of them, but especially reason number 6, which I’ve highlighted in bold.

“The following are examples of grief reaction that prompt shame. (1) The impact of loss triggers feelings of being out of control and vulnerable. Being out of control or anxious about loss of control prompts shame. (2) In grief one is particularly vulnerable to helplessness, separation, and abandonment anxieties, all of which are shame anxieties. (3) Persons may experience feelings of mortification and dread in grief over a death loss. These uncanny feelings are expressions of shame. (4) Feelings of self-blame may occur in reaction to death. Disturbance in self-regard, which are usually understood as guilt, tend to be, at a more fundamental level, shame… (5) A sense of utter aloneness may also prompt shame. Even though shame is called the social emotion (because it is an experience of oneself through the eyes of another, even when no other is involved), shame disconnects the self from both others and oneself… (6) A sense of violation of self, experienced as part of a grief reaction, is shame. Parts of the self that are exposed in grief leave the bereaved especially shame vulnerable. (7) The bereaved person is prone to further conceal the sense of exposure of the self that is present in each of these anxieties.”*

All of this–my own experience, the quotes and articles–is just to say that if you’re feeling your own shame in the midst of grief, that you are not alone.

More, invariably, to come on this topic.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

*Kauffman, Jeffery (2001) Shame. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying [Google Book Version]. Retrieved from here.

 

“Have a Good Cry.”

The first time I heard the phrase was when I was 14, visiting my older brother at college. His girlfriend at the time (who was about 22 years old) was making plans with her bestie to put on sweatpants, watch a sad movie, eat ice cream, and “have a good cry.” I was very confused. Why would anyone want to make themselves cry? Wait wait, is crying a good thing? I thought it was just for little kids? And what does it have to do with sweatpants and ice cream!?!?

I felt like these were deep mysteries of the Secret Society of Womanhood-ness, into which I had not yet been inducted.

Years later, I now understand all too well the concept of making time to schedule having a good cry, and the concept of crying as a leisure activity. What I didn’t understand as a 14 year old was that our reasons for crying change, expand and become more complex as we age. Ad Vingerhoets, a Dutch psyschologist and leader in the field of crying research, puts it this way on his really cool website about his work:

“…whereas [with crying] physical pain and hurt is important for children and even adolescents, for adults and the elderly they are less relevant. On the other hand, when we grow older, we come to cry more often for the suffering of others (empathy, compassion) and for “positive” reasons.”

The older we get, the more life experience and understanding we have of the world, the more empathy and compassion we accrue, and the more “positive” reasons we experience that move us–such as weddings, births, and other profound moments like when you are hiking in Grand Canyon by yourself and it’s so fucking majestic and then it starts to snow and there’s a raven swooping by on the wind and WTF it’s too much you can’t help but blubber.

But then, while we have more and more reasons to cry as we age, we often feel we have less and less permission to cry–for introductions to this topic check out my other blog posts here and here. So for those of us who are very sensitive and emotional people, creating space for crying as a leisure activity can be a really helpful way to blow off some emotional steam that’s been building up as we repress outward signs of emotion in our lives every day.

Are you looking for an emotional outlet and to have a good cry? Here’s a handy-dandy Buzzfeed list of 56 Movies Guaranteed To Make You Ugly Cry that I link to on my resources page. Go ahead. Slip on those sweatpants, grab a box of tissues, and knock yourself out.

I have found, however, that I have moved through the stage of needing to spend my leisure time manufacturing reasons to cry, into a new era where there are eleventy million things to cry about a day, and so I’m like “Enough! No sad movies! I just want a break from crying.”

These days I often seek movies that are ridiculous and that I know will not pull at my heartstrings nor inspire any sort or emotion, because sometimes I just need a holiday from feeling EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME…which is how I ended up seeing Why Him? in a movie theater a couple weeks ago rather than watching Rogue One for a second time with my dad and husband. Yes, Rogue One is by every metric a better movie and definitely worth a second viewing, but I knew from experience it was full of feels, and I just wanted to be full of sweet sweet oblivion, and a ticket to a stupid Rom-Com is cheaper and less dangerous than prescription opiates. MOVIES NOT DRUGS!!

And luckily, whether you are in need of a good cry or a good vacation from any sort of complex emotion altogether, you can go ahead and get your fix. The movie business has got your back.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

You’re Crying in Public: Now What?

None of us enjoy bursting into tears (or just having tears slide silently down our cheeks, unbidden) in situations that feel inappropriate or awkward. And yet for a person who cries, it is a scenario that is sometimes unavoidable. Some examples of places I have found myself unable to keep from crying that felt inappropriate:

  • In the cheese isle of a gourmet grocery store, because I had enjoyed buying cheese there with the man I broke up with 5 months prior
  • In front of a group of 5 year olds, because they “Weren’t taking Aladdin rehearsal seriously”
  • At work at a summer camp, because one of our campers, a 3rd grade boy with a twin sister, died tragically the day before
  • At the chiropractor’s office, because I was in so much pain, and he was an asshole who was telling me that failing to treat my misaligned back by seeing him for 12 sessions (which I couldn’t afford) could result in my death
  • SOBBING in a movie theater, after the credits for “Captain Philip” have finished, and the lights are on, and the employees are trying to sweep up popcorn because, as I kept repeating to my date: “It’s so complicated, there are no easy solutions!!!”
  • In front of a group of high school students I was teaching, because I was sad that my mom died
  • At a bar, because my husband and I saw a homeless kitten on the way there.
  • Checking people in to a yoga class because I was sad that my mom died
  • Silently sobbing in the back room of a tax office I worked at because my mom died.
  • In the radiology lobby of Kaiser, where I was waiting to get a “I had a miscarriage” ultrasound
  • Buying shampoo at CVS because I was sad that my mom died.

The list goes on and on (and on), but you get the idea. The reasons may be completely stupid or profound, but the result is the same: you are crying when you really don’t want to be crying. You are horrified, and would like to make it stop, and yet that just makes the crying happen more. Sometimes also with snot running down your face.

In the aftermath of my mom’s death in February of 2016 I’ve been in this situation so many times that I’ve (almost) become comfortable with it. At the very least, I have accepted that it is a part of life. And here are some strategies that I have found helpful:

1. Leave. I’ve left in the middle of yoga classes. I’ve abandoned shopping carts in grocery stores. I’ve just quietly excused myself and left the room. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply to quickly get yourself somewhere that you feel less awkward crying. Just go. No need to explain yourself (because you’ll probably just burst into tears AT the person). You can always tell them later that you had to step out for personal reasons.

2.If you can’t leave, don’t try to fight it. The more I try to resist crying, the worse it gets, and the longer it drags on (and sometimes results in that AWFUL sound that is a cross between a ragged gasp and a snort that results from trying to hold back sobs and that is roughly the same volume as a sonic boom). So if I feel those tears building up in a place that is awkward and I cannot leave, I just accept that it’s happening, cry some cries, and then move on.

3. Warn those around you that crying might happen. This one is a biggie and, frankly, my personal favorite. I’m a big fan of transparency and disclosure. There are some days when I wake up knowing that I will not get through the day without multiple cry-fests, and that I will have no control over when they happen. On those days, I give my students, friends, or co-workers some version of the following heads-up:

            Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m having a really emotional day. I’m fine and everything is okay, but you’ll probably see me cry at some point. And I want to assure you that if that happens you don’t need to do anything to fix it. 

And then, when the inevitable crying happens, I once again reassure them that I am okay, and continue to work/teach/hang out. And when I do that, something magical happens: people stop caring about the fact that I am crying, because they see that it is not a problem that they need to fix. They see that I am just a person, and that having visible emotions doesn’t interfere with me going about my day or being competent at what I do.

4. Phone a friend. Do this literally or figuratively. If you are alone, call someone that you can talk to through the episode. The time I was crying in the cheese isle, I called one of my very best friends who had been roommates with me and my ex boyfriend, and told her about my emotional breakdown at the sight of dill havarti (it was his favorite!). Walking down the street with my husband in downtown San Francisco one day, I had a panic attack because the sight of a man’s leg injury brought on flash-backs of my mother’s emaciated body in the hospital when she was dying. I tapped on my husband’s shoulder and managed to squeak out that I needed a minute, and we stopped walking, stepped out of the way of other pedestrians, and he just hugged me for a few minutes while I calmed down. If you are by yourself and you cannot hug or call someone, put on music that is familiar and comforting to you, find something nice to look at nearby, or just buy yourself a hot chocolate. These are not suggestions intended to help you avoid crying, but rather to provide comfort and support, so you can feel the feelings, cry the cries, and then move on.

While these tactics have been incredibly helpful to me, I’m sure they’re not everybody’s cup of tea. Do you have a go-to trick for when you start crying in public? I’d love to hear about it.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

What if there was crying in baseball?

It’s a classic scene. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably heard the line. It’s right up there with “I’ll have what she’s having” and “Nobody puts baby in a corner” (although I was a little surprised it didn’t make it onto this list of famous movie quotes). Just in case you are unfamiliar, or if you’d like to get re-acquainted, here is the scene from the 1992 sports comedy-drama, A League of Their Own

 

Disclaimer: I love this movie, this is a great scene, and Tom Hanks is bae. I’m not attempting to criticize the movie, but rather examine the dynamics of the interaction portrayed, which while more dramatic and entertaining than everyday life, nevertheless depicts some pervasive social norms.

Let’s look at what’s going on in the first minute and a half of this scene. Jimmy Dougan (Tom Hanks) is the coach of the baseball team that Evelyn Gardner (Bitty Schram) plays on. Evelyn makes a mistake that costs the team their lead, which makes Jimmy yell and Evelyn cry. And what strikes me about the scene is that it’s not Jimmy’s anger or Evelyn’s sadness and shame that get in the way of everyone’s day moving forward: it’s Jimmy’s reaction to Evelyn’s crying. Which leads me to 2 questions:

  1. Why does it make Jimmy so angry that Evelyn is crying?
  2. Why is it perfectly acceptable for a him to yell for an extended period of time and make everyone uncomfortable, but unacceptable for a woman to cry softly and make him uncomfortable?

Think about how this interaction would go if Jimmy wasn’t bothered by the fact that Evelyn was crying–if he expressed his anger and disappointment in her performance on the field by yelling, and she expressed her sadness and shame by crying, and then they moved on with their day. While it would make a crappy movie scene, it would make everyone’s lives involved so much easier.

I’d like to argue that the “problem” with crying in public (at work, in social settings, on the sidewalk when you see a homeless kitten) is not the person crying, but with the extreme discomfort crying elicits in many onlookers. But what if it wasn’t a problem?

Allow me one brief story to drive my point home. In 2008 I worked with a performance art company in Amsterdam, Netherlands. One day we were in a company meeting, and somebody’s cell phone rang. “Ooooooooh!” I thought, “Someone is going to be so busted! God, how embarrassing for them that their cell phone is ringing, how unprofessional, they must feel like such a jerk.” But then, something shocking happened: nobody cared that the cell phone was ringing, and the meeting just continued on as normal. You see, I had been conditioned to think that an errant cell phone ring was a problem big enough to warrant bringing everything to a grinding halt and shooting death-glares at the offending party. And because that’s what I’d been conditioned to think, I never considered that there was an alternative. Nobody had to fix the problem because there was no problem. Nobody had to get mad, or embarrassed, because there was no problem. It blew my mind.

What if seeing somebody cry didn’t have to make you feel uncomfortable? What if we were as accepting of crying in public as we are of laughing, or yelling, or smiling? What if crying was just another thing that happens sometimes, and that didn’t have to stop everything else that’s happening?

What if there was crying in baseball?

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

 

 

 

Kinds of Cry

What are some reasons a person might cry?*

*…okay by “a person” I mean me, and by “might” I mean “an exhaustive list of reasons I already have…today.”

Let’s be honest. Not all cries are equal. Crying because you got fired feels very different than crying because you’ve been dumped, feels very different still from crying (sobbing) because you’re on your period and you’re wearing a maxi dress and your husband wants to go for a walk but the shoes you’re wearing look stupid with your dress and you think you look like a Peanuts character. (That 3rd one is universal, right? Just me? Okay.) So in my quest to examine and normalize crying, I thought that a good place to start would be to list the different reasons there are for crying. In generating the list I noticed some things. Meet me at the bottom to hear more about that.

  • Shame
  • Grief
  • Heartbreak
  • Physical Pain
  • Surprise
  • Vulnerability
  • Sadness (see also: Grief and Loss)
  • Happiness
  • Laughter
  • Loss (see also: Grief)
  • Beauty
  • Humility
  • Hormonal cry
  • Sex: Pain (see also: Physical Pain)
  • Sex: Orgasm (see also: Vulnerability, Surprise, Release, and Awe/Overwhelm)
  • Confusion (see also: Shame)
  • Embarrassment (see also: Shame)
  • Art (see also: Awe/Overwhelm, Beauty, Surprise, Vulnerability, Nostalgia)
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Exhaustion
  • Empathy (see also: everything else on this list)
  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Betrayal
  • Jealousy (see also: Shame)
  • Anxiety
  • Hang Over (see also: Physical Pain and Hunger)
  • Release
  • Relief
  • You Hear a Song (see also: Art)
  • Awe/Overwhelm
  • Nostalgia (see also: Grief, Loss, and Heartbreak)
  • Injustice (see also: Anger, Frustration, Disappointment, and Empathy)
  • Loss of Control (see also: Fear and Shame)
  • Cutting an onion
  • Dust in your eyes
  • Hayfever
  • Because something is SO FLUFFEH
  • I don’t know, I just am!
  • Because you’re still asking me this question (*quiet sobs*) (see also: Frustration)

Okay. That was a long list, and I’m sure there are things that I left out. Now on to some of the things I noticed.

Looking at this list I am struck by 1. How long it is, and 2. That emotions that are seemingly opposite are nevertheless both on the same list. For example, Sadness and Happiness. Anxiety and Relief. Disappointment and Benedict Cumberbatch (okay, so that last one isn’t on the list, but is definitely the opposite of Disappointment.). That tells me that I can cry for lots of different reasons, and that those reasons can be seemingly contradictory.

As I was listing these reasons, I also noticed that to me, many of them seemed to be related, or even to be sub-sets of one another (hence the “see also”s after some of the reasons.) This tells me that a reason I am crying often isn’t one single reason, but rather a combination of many, inter-connected reasons.

And something that surprised me about writing this list was that it brought up a big question: All of these reasons make me cry. So what is it like to feel these things for someone who doesn’t cry? That’s something I’m excited to explore in future posts.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

Welcome to Can’t Not Cry

“You could sooner ask me to stop breathing than to stop crying.”

-My friend at lunch the other day, during a Super Serious Conversation.

 

Crying is something that every single person has done in their life (even if you never cry now you cried when you were a baby. ADMIT IT). Many of us cry often, and yet the only place that seems to be safe and acceptable to cry in our society is in the privacy of our own homes (or closets, or bathroom stalls) so that people who don’t love us unconditionally need not see it/hear it/know about it.

…which is super weird. Imagine if we had the same taboos about laughter as we have for crying. After all, laughter is a very similar physiological process to crying (breath, diaphragmatic movement, and facial expressions are often indistinguishable), laughter sometimes leads to crying (and vise versa) and both are universal, basic human emotions. Sure, there are occasions during which laughter is frowned upon, but as a whole laughter (unlike crying) is acceptable in every social sphere. Laughter (unlike crying) is not considered unprofessional. And laughter (unlike crying) is not considered to be a gendered activity.

WTF? How did we, as a society, arrive at this strange relationship we have with crying? Who made these rules? And why do they persist? Why do I cry a million times a week but my husband only cries once a decade? How do people on opposite ends of the cry spectrum negotiate a relationship? If crying is a universal, basic human emotion then why does half the population seem to suppress it almost entirely!? Why is it that when I don’t want to cry I can’t stop crying, but when I want to cry (hi, I’m and actor) I can’t make myself cry?!?! WHO BUILT STONEHENGE?!?!?!?

Well, I don’t have the answers, but I’m hoping that by asking the questions and sharing my experience that I can arrive at something helpful. Or comforting. Or make you feel less alone, or more validated. Or help you understand why the person you love is crying, and what you’d like to do in response.

Not crying isn’t an option. So let’s make the best of it.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe