Your grief is your grief. Please stop beating yourself up
Someone close to you died today. A week ago, or a month ago and you can’t cry.
You feel nothing.
Perhaps it has been months or even years.
You waited for the intense, soul-crushing grief to hit and it has not arrived. You are confused and wondering if something is wrong with you — if you are perhaps a cold person.
When my mother passed in 2018 it took me a week to have my first big cry.
And it was just that one time. After that, there were no tears. No tears at the funeral home as I adjusted the white scarf around the neck of this woman who used to be my mother, or at the funeral as we laid her to rest.
If you are like me, please remember that your relationship with the person who died and the circumstances surrounding their death was unique and so the way you grieve will be unique to you.
What is the shape of grief?
The absence of tears does not mean that you are not grieving. Your grief might just be manifesting in different ways. Instead of a massive breakdown and intense sadness that Western society has conditioned us to expect, you might experience only a low grade of sadness or even apathy. You might still be in disbelief or you might just carry on with everyday activities as if nothing has happened.
The fact that you cannot cry might be causing you extreme distress and a range of emotions like guilt, and disorientation because your grief doesn't look the way it is “supposed” to. What’s worse, you might be surrounded by people who judge and question the shape of your grief which might be flat instead of the prescribed full-bodied one.
It is my hope in this article that by sharing some universal experiences around the absence of tears in grief, you will stop beating yourself up about the way you are grieving and know that you are not alone.
5 Reasons why you can’t cry and how to cope
Grief and tears don’t have to go together. Here are five reasons why you might not be able to cry.
1. Anticipatory grief
If your person passed after being diagnosed with a terminal illness or had been dealing with a chronic illness for a long period of time, it is possible that you are experiencing anticipatory grief. This is a normal emotional response where you start the mourning process while they are still alive.
Things to Remember
- You don’t necessarily grieve less, feel less pain, or are finished with the grieving process. It just means that you have had time to process some aspects of the loss like clarifying misunderstandings, dealing with unfinished business, and saying goodbye before they actually die.
- It’s ok to feel relief that their long and perhaps layered battle is over, and they are no longer suffering. Seeing them when they were weak and declining might have made it maybe just a tad bit easier to let them go.
- It’s ok to distract yourself. Perhaps you had been the primary caretaker for many years and now you need some time to get back into a regular routine and to attend to other details of your life which might have been put on hold.
You might not cry because you are terrified by the intensity of your pain. You feel that if you allow yourself to start crying, you might lose control, have a nervous breakdown, or go crazy so you hold back the tears.
Things to Remember
- You cannot die from crying or cry forever. Your body will not let you cry for too long.
- Just because you feel crazy does not mean you are losing your mind. Grief is not a mental illness. It is a normal reaction to losing someone you love.
- Holding onto your emotions takes more energy than releasing them. You don’t have to put up a brave front.
Shock is one of the most common ways people respond to news of death. You emotionally shut down because the magnitude of the loss is too big to process at the moment.
Things to Remember
- Realize that shock is the way life cushions you against the full impact of the loss. It’s a temporary coping mechanism that is meant to be protective and let your mind and heart catch up with the harsh reality of death.
- Shock comes in different flavors. It could appear as numbness, disbelief, magical thinking, or dissociation.
- The shock will wear off gradually as you have time to mobilize your inner resources and gain the strength needed to process the death. No one can really predict how long it will take because it depends on many variables like the way the person died and your unique disposition. You are on your own timeline.
- Realize that others may misinterpret what’s going on with you and may conclude that you’re stronger or feeling better than you really are on the inside, or that you are not grieving.
- Be patient with yourself — experience whatever comes without criticizing yourself. When the shock wears off a bit, the intense feelings usually break through the numbness.
4. Delayed grief
Delayed grief is an experience of feeling deep sorrow, long after experiencing the death of someone you are close to. Somehow your emotional reaction to loss is postponed — pushed off for months, years, or even decades. The strength of the grief is no different from grief that happens right away, the only difference is in timing.
Things to Remember
- The immediate grief can be too overwhelming to cope with and process, so you put it off until later.
- Sometimes you put off your grief because you need to take care of immediate practical priorities like funeral arrangements, finances, childcare, etc. It might catch up with you later, sometimes triggered by another loss, or even something small.
- There might be other pressing matters after the funeral that require your attention like a divorce, an imminent change in job, or a pregnancy that delay the grieving process.
- You might put aside your grief because you are the strong one - the family pillar - and are expected to comfort others, or you have been conditioned to feel that crying is a sign of weakness.
- You might be in denial of the death and hide from the loss through your daily routines because it is too painful. It’s easier to continue living as if nothing has happened and you use avoidance as a coping mechanism.
5. Complicated relationship
You might not be able to cry because you had a complicated relationship with the person who died. For example, it could have been an abusive relationship with a parent, family member, or within a marriage. On the other hand, it could have just been a distant, indifferent relationship.
Things to Remember
- You still grieve, but it's just different.
- Difficult relationships tend to come with complicated emotions like relief that they are dead, indifference, guilt that you didn't try to mend the relationship when they were alive, or even anger that the person took something valuable from you like your sense of worth or childhood.
Please know that complicated emotions are part of the terrain of complicated relationships and there is nothing wrong with you for perhaps not missing them or feeling any sadness or compassion after their death.
Whatever your experience, don’t stress about how you’re handling it. Everybody grieves in their own way. Wherever you are on your grief timeline, know that you can find resources to help you further cope and explore your grief in all its incarnations and shapes.
The tears may come today, tomorrow, next year, or they might never come. It is my hope that you can find some comfort in the words shared and inspiration to validate and honor your grief — no matter how it shows up.