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Always a Surprise: Understanding Your Unexpected Tears

Ten years have passed since my daughter died. During this time I’ve unexpectedly burst into tears many times. I thought I would be used to this by now, but I’m not. Every time this happens I’m caught off guard, and taken by surprise. Am I a weak person? Did I miss something in my grief work?

Bursting into tears isn’t unique; it’s something that happens to all bereaved people. We have a flood of tears when grief is new. Years later, we still cry because death is permanent. Each morning, we awaken to another day without our loved ones, a painful reality. Worse, this reality never goes away.

Author Jeffrey A. Kottler examines grief and the tears that come with it in his book, The Language of Tears. He thinks tears are their own language with their own vocabulary. Tears come when words fail us, according to Kottler. Indeed, “tears communicate powerfully, forcefully, honestly what you are feeling inside,” he writes.

Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, says crying may be nature’s way of lowering the brain’s chemicals that “prime stress.” Although crying may provide emotional release and break the spell of sadness, Goleman notes, you may obsess on the reasons for your tears. “Crying that reinforces rumination only prolongs misery,” he explains. Obsessing about anything—including surprising tears—can be exhausting.

You don’t have to obsess about the reasons behind your tears, yet you may take a few minutes to identify the causes. In 2007 four of my family members died—my daughter, my father-in-law, my brother, and my former son-in-law. Multiple losses changed my life drastically. I cried buckets of tears and, as time passed, realized they came from two main causes.

One, I was living life without my loved ones, and it would always be this way.

Two, although my loved ones aren’t present, I still love them.

Since I couldn’t hug my loved ones, laugh with them, discuss news headlines, or do things together, I searched for new ways to express love. Each year, my husband and I donate money to the local food bank in memory of our daughter. My brother loved books, so I donate new and used books to the public library in his memory. With help from relatives, we established a scholarship at the University of Minnesota Medical School in his memory. Because my former son-in-law loved nature, especially boating and fishing on the Mississippi River, I improved my observation powers. Today, I observe nature closely, marvel at its complexity, and savor its beauty.

All bereaved people will experience unexpected tears. You wouldn’t cry if you didn’t love so much. Tears may be a surprise, but they also prove that love lasts forever.



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About the Author

Harriet Hodgson has been an independent journalist for 35+ years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Association for Death Education and Counseling, Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support, and World Speakers Association. Hodgson is a Forum Moderator/Writer for and author of eight grief resources.

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