The Power of Tears

“… I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will heal thee…”
2 Kings 20:5

There was once a product called “No More Tears” detangling spray I used frequently as a child. As a little girl, snarls were my reality; therefore, this product was mandatory. Mom pulled and sprayed my hair, while I’d stare at the bottle’s portrait. Radiant mother was brushing radiant daughter’s flowing tresses. There were no feelings of inadequacy, no complicated views of human emotions and no sore scalp. The bottle simply promised, “No More Tears.”

If only life could be that easy.

But, indeed, my personal experience with tears has been un-easy. Crying – unpleasant emotion of any kind – was viewed and treated negatively, as something to be avoided, covered, silenced or punished. Tears were the uncomfortable evidence all is not well; there is disease, pain and trauma here.

However, in the last fifteen years, I have come to view tears through a healthier, more meaningful lens. As we deal with our addictions, disorders and traumas, addressing what our tears represent to us, we aren’t far removed from the harmful beliefs which contribute to our struggles and thwart our recoveries.

I once stumbled across a photo which compared four types of human tears: tears of grief, tears of change, tears cried from onions and tears of laughter. I was struck by their imagery; each seemed to offer a specific signature concerning life experience.

Tears of Grief:

First, we see this microscopic picture of tears of loss. It resembles a sparse wasteland. To me, the prevalence of the tears’ open space appears as a lonely island surround by an ocean. The impression I get from these magnified tears is one of disconnect.

And this was exactly where I was as I was confronted by my dad’s death in 2003.

“The Easy Death:”

Even as I found connection within my faith as an adult, I still did not deal with the unresolved issues I had with him. By this point, I was married, living in another state, and pursuing my writing career. I had also been in therapy. Still, the dysfunctional relationship with my dad proved to be painful and powerful.

But I never thought he would have such an effect on me. After all, as a child, I prayed for him to die. I hated him; I had murderous revenge fantasies concerning him. I was thoroughly convinced his death would be easy for me. Then, I could and would be free and happy. Not quite…
Instead, my dad’s old age and health challenges caused me to feel pity. I tried to get closer with him. But I didn’t get the results I desired. Deterioration of his health, hearing loss and mental fog now made connecting with him almost impossible.

The Last Father’s Day:

Father’s Day has always been painful. However, in June of 2003, I decided to call my dad to wish him a “Happy Father’s Day.” The conversation was uncomfortable as his confusion and hearing loss got in the way. His aggravation increased. At one point, he asked me, “Aren’t you doing anything?” I felt slapped. I then spat out the words, “Happy Father’s Day” and ended the phone call. I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I’d speak with him.

The following month, my mom phoned me; my dad had a health crisis. Having already experienced a series of mini-strokes, he was now further weakened from larger, more crippling strokes. This left my mother with no choice other than to hospitalize him and later place him in a care facility.

Now I felt an urgency to see him; it had been at least four years since we’d seen each other. But Mom assured me there was still time. “There was still time.” That statement haunted me. I wasn’t there. There were legitimate reasons why, finances and scheduling conflicts being two of them, but, to reassure myself, I held onto that statement: “there was still time.”

July of 2003 consisted of reports of his temporary paralysis, sprinkled with occasional improvements, like regaining movement and consciousness. This rollercoaster added further urgency. My husband and I booked a flight for early August.

But, on August 6th, 2003, life changed. My phone rang at seven in the morning. He was gone. There was no longer time.

“Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver.”
Sophocles, “Antigone”

I went to the funeral, spending a few days in Minnesota. That was expected of me. My outward display of grief and tears and grief were also expected. However, I could not comply. I did not cry on cue at the funeral or at the cemetery. He was given military honors and my mom was presented with the American flag. I heard the sobs and sniffles of people behind me. But I did not cry.

However, behind closed doors, away from everyone, it was a different story. Night after night, I was up until two or three o’clock in the morning, sobbing in the hotel bathroom. And that took me by surprise; I was still convinced my dad’s death wouldn’t be this painful.
I was grieving, but I wasn’t even grieving him. I never really knew him. Instead, I grieved the loss of the potential for that father/daughter relationship. It would never be. It was further complicated over what “should have been.”

There was no denying it; I definitely experienced the stages of death and dying, documented by Elizabeth Kubler- Ross. I would not escape them.

Upon my return home to Oregon, after the funeral, I kept people at a distance.

I knew the right “grief speak” when I encountered people. I would say things like the cliché, “He’s at peace” and “He’s in a better place.” I would thank everyone for their prayers and support, but inside, I felt abandoned, and overwhelmed with regret.

And those feelings eventually showed up physically.

My bouts with insomnia made everything worse: my nerves, my routines, my communication with others and my spiritual connection with The Most High. Everything was viewed through my exhausted filter. I had no will, no desire and no energy to do any of the things I had done before.

For my life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing:
my strength faileth because of mine iniquity, and my bones are consumed.
Psalm 31:10

My grief made me physically sick with back pain, an upset stomach and sluggishness. I still tried to press on, convinced I could return to normal. But, as I failed each attempt, I came down harder on myself. And that’s when I got a big physical sign of my grief, a lump in my breast.
I went to my doctor and had the lump tested, having my first mammogram; fortunately, it turned up nothing.

While being relieved, I was also frustrated. Why did I have to deal with this? My doctor informed me the stress from my grief had also physically contributed to the lump. Mind affects body.

“…grief can compromise our immune system… it is also associated with more severe outcomes, including premature death. Research has found a significant increase in excess mortality…”
“How Grief Affects the Body”By Kathleen Hall

And because I suppressed my physical tears, nothing else in my body was processing in a healthy manner either.

“… Tears help us process the loss so we can keep living with open hearts. Otherwise, we are a set up for depression if we suppress these potent feelings…”
“The Health Benefits of Tears,”

Tears of Change:

I was, indeed, poised for depression as I attempted to stop change from happening. Grief was internalized for a year after my dad’s death. I could not sleep. I was crying all hours of the night. I repeatedly cancelled meetings and appointments; I was unable to get out of bed and out of the apartment.

My failure concept, therefore, was even more emphasized. It was just too much to bear. I couldn’t do it, even though I knew that I “should!” I was going through loss, failure and hopelessness. That was now who I was!

Tears of change, according to this microscopic image, appear to crowd each other out. My impression is one which is overwhelming; there’s not enough room to breathe, to think or to simply be.

And that’s where I was, now grappling with my own complicated tears of change.

Trying to find comfort and safety anywhere, I attempted to sustain my normal routine, but that was impacted as well. My church was going through leadership changes. I felt even more desperate and lost. I had no room to logically entertain the truth: everything changes over time. But in my vulnerable state, this was the worst possible time for anything more to change. Hadn’t I experienced enough already?

Life inevitably moved on. As that happened, however, I felt forced to confront my grief by myself.

Waters flowed over mine head; then I said, I am cut off. Lamentations 3:54

No matter what anyone did or did not do, it wasn’t enough.

Now I’m a prime candidate for the next stages of grief, Anger and Bargaining.

I was stuck.

It was punctuated by years of my frustrated efforts to please and be loved by my abusive dad. I was a powerless child.

And so, part of my adult struggle was to defy that oppressive world. For years, I tried to do just that. I graduated college, sought therapy for my eating disorders, married a non-abusive, loving man and was on the brink of my first book’s publication.

So, when my dad died, all of that felt derailed. As I flailed in my grief, fighting the existence of every tear, I soon found myself at my childhood conclusion: “There’s No Point!”

A definition of anger asserts it consists of three factors: fear, hurt and frustration.

Denial of any or all of those three anger components can only be held back for so long. Eventually, the dam bursts. We are crying out of anger, but it’s much more complicated than that actual word itself.

And, this anger issue is often tied to our perceptions of change, impacting our tears of change, as we struggle with one specific question: do we have the permission to change?

Not surprisingly, change was not viewed positively in my family. It represented a threat to family reputation. Therefore, it was forbidden.
I had not been granted that permission for much of my life.

So, now, in the reality of my dad’s death, what was I supposed to do? The biggest opponent to my change was gone. My abuser had died. So, why wasn’t I freed? Because I had now assumed that abuser role.

And, it was here where I entered the bargaining stage.

I’ll do anything!

I was desperate to keep my pre-grief schedule, commitments and responsibilities. I wanted to show how I was fine (and not cry). However, my life was affected.

Chaotic sleep schedules, raging failure feelings and a dry well of writing now existed in my grief. I couldn’t get it together like I was supposed to.

When it came to the unavoidable, inevitable life constant of change, I was stressing myself out.

“Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your ‘fight or flight’ response. The CNS instantly tells the rest of your body what to do, marshaling all resources to the cause… If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, it takes a toll on your body.

“Symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, anxiety, and depression. You may suffer from headaches or insomnia. Chronic stress is a factor in some behaviors like overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, or social withdrawal…”
“The Effects of Stress on the Body”

In addition to seeing a physician, I needed intense grief counseling as well. And, it was here where I started re-evaluating my definition of what life was now going to look like.

“…For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”
Isaiah 43:18-19

It was here I dealt with another human version of tears.

Onion Tears:

These may appear to be a most unlikely kind of tears for us to face as we deal with grief and painful issues. After all, when we think of cutting onions, what springs to mind is the chemical reaction they have with our bodies…

“…When you cut an onion, you break cells, releasing their contents. Amino acid sulfoxides form sulfenic acids. Enzymes that were kept separate now are free to mix with the sulfenic acids to produce propanethiol S-oxide, a volatile sulfur compound that wafts upward toward your eyes. This gas reacts with the water in your tears to form sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid burns, stimulating your eyes to release more tears to wash the irritant away…”
“Why Do Onions Make You Cry?”

Nevertheless, they are important. As I look at the microscopic image of these tears, to me, they resemble intricate snowflakes, completely filling the space.

The Mundane Day To Day:

And that, I suppose, is part of the point: these unassuming onion tears can represent most of what life is about: the day in, day out stuff. If we dismiss these onion tears as a chemical reaction only, I believe we do ourselves a disservice.

As I muddled through my grief and each of its stages, I gradually learned a newer kind of normal. The cliché was still true: life continues.
Co-existing with the grief, the pain, the tears, mundane stuff also needs to be accomplished. We still have to do our laundry, brush our teeth and take care of every tedious task.

And no, that reality is not easy.

Nevertheless, I needed to navigate that collision of the mundane and the grief. Mercy’s necessity was a played a large part in that.

It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed,
because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning:
great is thy faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

No matter how alone I felt, I needed to tap into the patient kindness as I adapted. And strangely enough, the mundane daily tasks offered reassuring healing. Life DOES go on.

And, all through that reality, further reassurance exists as we learn and apply Divine Truth: The Most High knows ALL about us. Scripture proclaims this Omniscience.

Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising,
thou understandest my thought afar off.
Psalm 139:2

We can be actively mourning, feeling our despair or “white knuckling” our way through each complicated emotion as we carpool, grocery shop, go to the dentist and keep life going. All thoughts are known to our Creator. And He helps in the midst of all of them.

“When you close your doors, and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?”
Epictetus (55 AD-135-AD), Discourses

And, oh so slowly, as time passed, I moved through many of those painful thoughts; I moved through my grief.

I gradually arrived at the living organism of acceptance. And, within this space, I encountered a form of tears I never believed I’d experience again.

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Psalm 126:5

Tears of Laughter:

Whether it’s the pain of grief or tackling any other difficult issue, laughter is much-needed. There needs to be perspective and a healthy release valve.

Returning again, to this photograph of tears, we see its microscopic image. With tears of laughter, there seems to be “enough room.” And, unlike the desolation depicted with tears of grief, these laughter tears have some activity going on. But it is neither the overwhelmed, too crowded of tears of change nor that of the busy snowflake action of the onion tears. Instead, we see breaks, or bursts, in the tears.
And we can find, yes, it is true: bursts of laughter can help to break the tension of any situation.

Case on point: the favorite chick flick, “Steel Magnolias.”

There is a famous cemetery scene in which the mourners’ sobbing is interrupted by an explosion of laughter. The character, Truvy punctuates this much-needed incident, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

And we can see, physiologically why there’s a big reason why…

“… laughter relaxes the body by overriding stress and anger so relieving tension – an effect that can last for up to 45 minutes after… The positive effects of laughter also extend to health benefits that can prevent serious illness. This includes an improved immune system which it achieves by increasing immune cells and antibodies to strengthen its ability to cope with viruses and disease… Laughter also protects the heart by improving the function of blood vessels, encouraging blood flow and over time improving cholesterol and blood pressure thereby helping to prevent heart attack, heart disease or other circulatory system diseases…”
Positive Effects of Laughter” by Mack Lemouse

Whether it is matters of grief or of addiction/recovery, we all need a break from this most difficult work.

And, in zenith of laughter’s tears, we can tackle life’s traumatic realities with, perhaps, the completely inappropriate response of outrageous humor. We can do that with grief; we can do that with our addictions. We can challenge the absurdity of it all.

A key help in my personal challenging of that absurdity included heavy viewing of films by Mel Brooks. “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” served as a reprieve from my reality. And yes, that is necessary. Escape still is vital when it comes to the grueling stuff of life. And it’s a much healthier option than going full bore into addiction.

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine… Proverbs 17:22

They are NOT kidding there.

Tears of laughter often go overlooked in the grand scheme of emotion.

And furthermore, there may even exist an extra complicated layer for those of us struggling with both addiction and grief. For one reason or another, we may believe we don’t deserve happiness. Survivor’s guilt, PSTD, lack of closure- these are but a few possibilities which can argue against our right to attain wellbeing. If we’re not careful, we can easily fall into the pit of believing we deserve to be in a state of despair for the rest of our lives. We “should have” or “shouldn’t have” done this or that. Therefore, permanent removal of laughter, happiness and joy is our much-deserved punishment.

All the more reason, perhaps, why The Most High has specifically created these tears of laughter; like all of tears, they have their purpose. That purpose emanates from His astounding, unfathomable Love.

“…Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love…” Jeremiah 31:3

It, indeed, may be argued tears, Divinely- given, are so given because Elohim knows we, as human beings, need to express the wide range of emotion we encounter. To suppress anything falling within that range, therefore, is harmful and does not portray accurately just how important tears are TO The Most High.

Thou tellest my wanderings:
put thou my tears into thy bottle:
are they not in thy book?
Psalm 56:8

Our Heavenly Father is so invested in His love of us. Tears are necessary in recovering from everything under the sun. They are as important to us as any sponsor, program, church or step.

Each of us has an opinion about tears. What is it?

Answering that question and adjusting our perspectives on these watery entities could, perhaps, make the difference between us experiencing further pain or further healing. It is up to each of us to decide what to do with this untapped power.

It’s about more much more than crying.