You can’t cry forever; your body will not let you
"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear." C. S Lewis
I stood on the hot red earth where her body had just been laid to rest.
People cried and rolled on the ground as was customary in the African culture. The screams were primal and piercing — the air saturated and heavy with grief.
Many danced around the grave according to the funeral rites of my Metta tribe and I danced with them. The grief for the loss of my mother was there, no doubt, but I refused to surrender to the tears because I was deathly afraid of what would happen if they were allowed to reach the surface.
With each beat of the drums, I danced harder and swallowed the unknown thing lurking within that was threatening to split my throat open.
I danced to survive.
There are many reasons why you might not be able to cry in early grief or might be unwilling to engage with painful emotions surrounding death. Sometimes it is because you are in shock and your body is trying to protect you with a wall of numbness. Other times it might be because you experienced anticipatory grief because your loved one received a terminal diagnosis.
What is usually not considered is that some people do not exhibit symptoms of grief like crying because they are frozen by fear: a thick primal fear that paralyzes them from within.
As a collective, we are so afraid of dropping into the well of grief because of the fear that we may never return. We fear that the overwhelming emotions of grief might consume and destroy us.
With these beliefs as a backdrop, it is logical to resist any natural painful reactions to loss like crying.
Once I learned that it was this fear that kept me from crying during the funeral, I was able to create space for it and in this article, I will show you how to relate differently to your fear.
How to soothe your fears
“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”- Viktor E. Frankl
1. Name the fear
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions that when activated, possesses and paralyzes our minds, emotions, and physical body.
One of the biggest fears in grief is the unknown. The not knowing what to expect or what to do with all the anguish that has been unceremoniously dumped into your lap.
As a culture and society, we have put death in the closet and the direct consequence is that for the most part, we don’t know how to grieve.
Fear is just a big bully in the dark and with the right tools, you can begin to shine the light of awareness on this death anxiety.
Sow the seeds of awareness
To initiate the process, it is helpful to find out what you are afraid of. Naming your fears allows you more space to examine them.
Set aside 5–10 minutes when you will not be interrupted to do a stream of consciousness journaling to the prompt below.
I am afraid of crying because….
Allow the words to flow uninhibited. Once you feel complete, dig even deeper into the fear by exploring different scenarios that you think could happen.
For example, if you are afraid that if you start crying, you will never stop, explore this fear by asking some additional questions.
- If you start crying now, will you continue crying tomorrow, the next day, the next month?
- Is there any evidence that it is physically possible to cry continuously?
As you investigate, what you notice is that the fears are not based on rational thought. In addition, you might realize that you are not afraid that you will not stop, but rather you are afraid of the enormity of the pain which feels dangerous and threatening because you don’t have the tools to process what might come up.
By naming your fear, you create space which then opens you up to different possibilities.
2. Gather evidence and evaluate risks
With your fears in conscious awareness, you can begin to investigate and interview them, put them in the limelight and let them argue their case. From this more grounded place, you can now filter out truth from myth.
To continue with our example of the fear that if you start crying you will never stop, you can gather evidence about this fear in three ways below.
Do research on the fear to learn more about the perceived risks. For example, if you investigate the statistics on intense crying, you might learn that the probability of crying forever or dying from crying for that matter is zero. Research indicates that instead of killing you, crying is self-soothing.
Educate yourself on the process
Most times, we fear what we don’t know. If you educate yourself more on the physical process of crying — for example, what happens in your body when you cry, how long can you physically cry, what are the aftereffects, etc. the sharp edges of the fear will dull because you know what to expect.
Based on my own research (because this was a legitimate fear for me), I found out that for crying to kill you, you would have to cry straight for days without eating or drinking, but of course, your body will not let you. It has an emotional thermostat that only allows you to cry as long as you are physically able before you pass out from exhaustion.
Other people’s experiences
Luckily, no one is an island, and we have billions of people from the past to draw hope and inspiration from. You can read about other people’s experiences with grief and crying so that you begin the see the different spectrums of experience.
For example, after countless hours of interacting with many grievers, the resounding evidence is that the crying eventually calms down and strangely enough you feel deep peace and uplift of your spirits after a deep crying session.
3. Learn how to dose
“Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground “— Oscar Wilde
When I was learning how to handstand, the first thing I learned was how to fall, because you will fall — countless times — but once you know how to fall safely, you are well on your way to experiencing the world upside down.
Dosing applies a similar concept. It is a fundamental practice of self-compassion which helps you regulate the fear that comes when you move into regions of insurmountable grief.
Dosing strategies help you turn down the volume of the grief if it becomes too overwhelming so that you feel more confident in your ability to face your fears.
Here are two dosing practices you can use to soothe your fears when they show their faces.
Breathing deeply directly activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms down the sympathetic nervous system and fear centers in the brain.
Follow Your Breath
- Close your eyes and inhale through your nose for a count of three.
- At the top of the inhale, hold your breath for a count of three, and then exhale.
The key is to bring full awareness to the breath and the counts. This quiets the mind and the body. If you feel too overwhelmed. You can also breathe in and out to this playlist.
Time: 1 minute to 3 minutes.
Feel Your Feet
This method of dosing is very fast and effective. While sitting or standing, place all your awareness on the bottom of your feet and pay attention to any sensations. When grounded, the diurnal rhythm of the stress hormone, cortisol, begins to normalize.
Time: 30 seconds to 1 minute.
4. Schedule a crying session
“Every time your fear is invited up, every time you recognize it and smile at it, your fear will lose some of its strength.”
Thich Nhat Hanh
While avoiding the pain of grief may make you feel better in the short term, avoidance can cause increased harm in the long term. When you avoid fear, you teach your amygdala (the fear center in your brain) that you can’t handle it.
On the other hand, when you gradually face your fears in small doses so that they don’t overwhelm you, this may help decrease anxiety and let your brain become accustomed to the fear.
To be able to dance with the fear, you need to create a bottom for your grief. A container that can catch the weight of all the pain that will come up.
A crying session is a controlled environment, a sacred space, that allows you to let the pain out and see what happens. If there is someone you trust, you can have them sit with you and hold space during the session.
With the support of others, you will feel more confident that you can deal with issues. And physically, having a loved one close calms you and reduces the fight or flight response.
5. Get support
Fear can also keep us disconnected and isolated.
When you share your fears with others, it takes away a lot of scariness. You can try talking about your fears with friends, family, or others in a grieving support group and listen to their experiences. They can help you make realistic assessments of the threat. With the support of others, you feel more confident to deal with issues.
If you are having difficulty on your own, you can also connect to a grief counselor to help guide you through the process of facing your fear patterns.
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
— Rainer Marie Rilke
The key to facing the fear associated with death and grieving is to take one small step at a time. Holding onto your emotions takes more energy than releasing them.
Remember that you don’t have to face the fear head-on, you can approach it from the different angles proposed in this article.
A helpful way to think of this fear of grieving is as an edge you come to about what you know about yourself. As you get to know your fear, you enlarge your perception of self, and crying in grief can be a transformative process.
It is safe to cry, and when you do, it won’t last forever.