Charles Darwin was wrong. Tears are not purposeless.
Although some other species instinctively cry out in pain or because of other irritants, humans are the only creatures whose tears spill because of their emotions.
So why do we do it?
Why do we cry, for example, when we are sad?
Between 2018 when my mother died and now, I must have cried 10 times the 15–30 gallons of tears the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) says we make every year.
After spending hundreds of hours floating in a film of bulky tears composed of proteins, sorrow, and the inexpressible, I must agree with Rumi, Osho, and a host of other mystics and scientists who have investigated and written about the purpose of tears.
Charles Darwin was wrong. Tears are not purposeless.
Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger, and as complex as rites of passage. They are the evidence of our inner life overflowing its boundaries, spilling over into consciousness.” — Rose-Lynn Fisher
Rose-Lynn Fisher's image of tears of grief above, photographed through an optical standard light microscope provides a glimpse into the mystery: the landscape of heartbreak.
Everybody’s grief expresses differently and if we could look at everyone’s tears under a microscope, the topography, I imagine would look vastly different, but what remains the same for all is this: tears act as an eloquent messenger of that which is alive in the heart and can no longer be contained.
“Tears are nothing but an overflow; they can be an overflow of sadness, an overflow of joy, there can be an overflow of love.” — Osho
Since your person passed away, maybe you’ve been crying continuously and you are wondering if something is wrong with you, or perhaps you cannot squeeze out a single tear from your lacrimal glands because you are afraid that if you start, you will never stop.
No matter where you are on your grief journey, in this article I invite you to reimagine your relationship to tears as something sacred and safe instead of something to be dreaded, feared, or avoided.
“Never be ashamed of your tears, be proud that you are still natural. Be proud that you can express the inexpressible through your tears. “— Osho
10 things that can happen when you allow your tears space…
When you invite them in, embrace them as if old friends and ultimately surrender to them in wild abandon.
1. Release stress hormones
“Crying is cleansing. There’s a reason for tears, happiness or sadness.”
— Dionne Warwick
Imagine a warm soapy washcloth cleansing your bloodstream, nasal passageways, lungs, and internal organs.
That’s what crying does — it gives you an internal bath.
Emotional tears also called psychic tears are different from the basal tears we produce to keep our eyes moisturized and cleaned. When you cry because of emotional pain, your body releases toxic hormones like cortisol and prolactin which build up and accumulate during periods of elevated stress.
2. Improves your mood
“…you know that a good, long session of weeping can often make you feel better, even if your circumstances have not changed one bit.”- Lemony Snicket
Five months into my grieving process, I scheduled 90-minute crying sessions because I was tired of the tears which were taking over my life. What I noticed was that after every session, I felt peaceful and light.
Crying for long periods stimulates the production and release of endorphins which are the body’s natural painkillers and can help ease both physical and emotional pain restoring emotional balance.
“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.”
— Hans Christian Andersen (The Little Mermaid)
Crying is a self-soothing behavior that we are born knowing how to do. Babies have no qualms about crying when the need arises and in grief when stress hormones are constantly skyrocketing and emotions are sweeping, crying can help us survive the present moment.
Crying soothes you by facilitating the release of oxytocin also known as the cuddle hormone which creates a sense of calm allowing you some respite. I remember always feeling like I was wrapped in a cocoon of warmth after a heavy crying session.
4. Invite connection, support, and bonding
“When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.”
Tears reveal a vulnerability that encourages empathy and rally support from people who become more open to providing a warm hug and a shoulder to cry on. When you allow your soft side to be seen, you are also giving permission for others to open up and ask for support.
It takes more courage to be vulnerable than to hide behind an armor of plastic strength, and it almost always invites bonding and inspires deeper connections.
5. Kickstarts your grieving process
“The heart is frozen, and tears are the beginning of its melting.” — Osho
When you lose someone who grounded your sense of self in the world, there is a shattering of your worldview, and you might feel frozen in a fog of disbelief.
Tears initiate the process of thawing. Tears are an acknowledgment of the place your loved one held in your life and an acknowledgment of the hole and emptiness their absence has left.
6. Process emotions and rewire neural pathways
Recovery depends upon gradually reconnecting with suppressed memories - the emotions and memories that we’re not ready to face… To move forward, we need to find tools that will help us reconnect with suppressed memories.”
— Lisa M. Shulman, MD
A psychological injury as intense as the death of a loved one causes neural pathways to get amped up and hijacked due to the stress response. Crying is a tool that allows us to begin the gradual process of reorganizing memory traces through neuroplasticity.
As we weep, we start reconnecting to suppressed memories, where we have the possibility of neutralizing the emotional charge through awareness. With time, this cumulative process results in the restoration of neural pathways, the reversal of the effects of chronic stress, and the reconstruction of new meaningful narratives.
7. Experience catharsis
“It is some relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears.” — Ovid
The idea that crying is cathartic dates back to antiquity and the word catharsis means “to cleanse, purge.”
When we experience the death of someone who endorsed our self-definition, the foundations of our core believes and assumptions about the way the world works crumble.
Over time, the stress of the internal conflict causes intense emotions to build up and at some point, the turmoil reaches a boiling point.
Crying stirs those deep emotions and as you allow your tears to spill, your inner world surfaces and reveals underlying unconscious thoughts and images. In witnessing and acknowledging what is, you experience a release of the tension of suppressed emotion and arrive at moments of insights and lingering lightness.
8. Connects you to the well of sorrow
“Tears are the silent language of grief.” — Voltaire
After the first month of my scheduled crying sessions, I noticed something mysterious: each crying session revealed a backlog of unexpressed grief.
It was as if all the hidden places of grief from my life story had been activated and were vying for attention. My mother’s death had granted me access to my personal well of unattended sorrows that included abandoned dreams, ancient slights, heartbreaks, frustrations, rage, and accumulated grief that had been frozen in place.
Our tears are the voices of our congested sorrow and stories of loss that prevent us from accessing our most essential self. They carry us to the place within where we have the opportunity to reintegrate the parts of self that had been in exile.
9. Rewrite your story
The more we process our pain through tears, it becomes a gradual cumulative process where our minds begin to open to new possibilities for our future.
We begin to rewrite our story in such a way that the loss fits into our lives and makes sense to us. Insights from my crying sessions activated the dormant poet and writer in me and I have found a renewed sense of purpose in helping others navigate the labyrinth patterns of grief which make my mother’s death feel less senseless.
10. Allows compassion to bud and bloom
“He wept those bitter tears that melts us to the vulnerable truths we must all confront.” — Francis Weller
In one crying session, after many months, I was finally able to embrace the tears. In that moment of surrender, it was as if I was transported into the hall of all human horror stories across time.
Suspended in this sea of sorrow, rather than feeling the anguish, I felt compassion budding for the human dilemma and suffering which is inherent in our existence.
My grief began to feel less personal and significant, swallowed as it was in the impersonal universality of all this terror and grief.
And even one moment’s glimpse of this vastness completely changes the context of your grief: it allows compassion to bud and bloom as you come to recognize the inseparable threads that braid us together.
“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world…but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.” ― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
After spending many hours collecting my tears in a basket weaved from strands of mettle, I was able to arrive at a place of peace and a deeper connection to my humanity and purpose.
I learned what must be the biggest paradox: that the deepest source of comfort for your pain is there at the center of it, and it is tears that will provide you with the escape velocity to orbit out of the pond of your pain into the ocean of our pain where you have the possibility to rewrite your story.
As you tread your path through grief, be gentle with yourself, and the next time you feel those viscous tears coming, please don’t hold back.
Go on and cry.
Remember that it takes loud courage and big love to embrace your tears, and surrender to the most personally painful contents of your life.
Remember that your tears are a testament to love, and a bridge to your new story.