‘I never cried when my mom passed on’ - Why it's not always unnatural to grieve without tears

Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
Illustration. Photo by Getty Images
  • The loss of a loved one is often expected to be accompanied by grief and tears.
  • However, not all losses result in grief and may sometimes be a relief after a lengthy illness or other reasons.
  • How people deal with mourning is a reflection of how they deal with other stressful situations.

We have come to associate mourning with an external show of emotions, and we are quick to assume that what we see on the outside reflects what is going on inside.

However, if we look a little more closely at the process of grief and consider various other factors specific to each individual who experiences pain, we might get a different perspective.

We might start to understand the complexity of the mourning process and the fact that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to grieve. 

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A W24 reader wrote to us concerned that she did not cry when her mother passed and thought it may mean that she lacks empathy.

We spoke to clinical psychologist, Dorianne Weil (Dr D) about the issue and she says there's an assumption that everyone is grief stricken when a loved one passes. She explains that while there is often grief and sadness, sometimes there's quite a lot of relief at the loss of someone. It could be that they were suffering for long before they died. Or perhaps the relationship with the deceased was not good. There might be many other emotions at play, such as guilt and regret. Other factors account for numbness or the inability to cry when facing a loss on that scale.

In 1969, American-Swiss psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, wrote a book entitled On Death and Dying in which she developed a theory on the five stages of grief and loss. 

The first stage of grief is denial. The purpose of denial is to help us survive the trauma of the loss. Denial is a common defence mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss, numbing us to our emotions. For many people experiencing grief, this stage is essential in the grieving process.

According to Kübler-Ross: "Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature's way of letting in only as much as we can handle." 

If someone is at the beginning stages of bereavement, this might explain why he or she is struggling to cry.

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Dr D sees this regularly in her patients, not only when it comes to dealing with death and mourning, but also in various other stressful life situations. She sees it as a form of self protection and as such, it is healthy for a certain amount of time, in moderation.

However, it can become detrimental when it prevents you from coming to terms with the loss in the long run. It can manifest in many ways, often in the form of disconnection, and it can prevent you from being able to launch yourself back into your work or personal life.

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Dr Melanie Polatinsky, who has a PhD in social work, specialises in bereavement. She agrees that emotional numbness is a common and normal phenomenon in the beginning stages of grief.

However, ongoing emotional numbness is often seen in people who have already numbed their inner emotions in many areas of their lives. She explains that usually, the way you are emotionally before the bereavement, will emerge during the bereavement. If you were a person who found it really hard to cry, you might not cry.

She explains: "This usually happens in the case of people who have been hurt previously. They subconsciously make a contract with themselves and the child inside them never to let people or situations hurt them."

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She sees this emotional "stuckness" as part of an underlying emotional problem. 

For such a person, therapy might be a functional space for the individual to get in touch with their emotions so that they can face themselves and some of their emotional blocks, and eventually heal. 

Both Dr D and Polatinsky see tears as an essential part of the grieving process. Tears offer an emotional release. They enable us to express ourselves at the deepest level, and in doing so, heal. 

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