In Praise of Crying + How to Trigger It

Crying releases endorphins, hormones that help relieve stress and make us feel more at peace. It’s also actually good for our eyes. It’s possible that crying can even help us sleep better, although the research to date has focused on babies rather than adults. Here are a few short articles on the benefits of crying:

Since my husband died last year, I have cried a lot, often every day for weeks or months in a row, so I was surprised earlier this summer when I felt like I wanted to cry but I couldn’t seem to summon up any tears. It was frustrating because I felt the build up inside of me that tells me I need to cry . . . but with no crying, there was no release of that build up. I felt it in my chest, a tightness first and then a weight that grew and grew. It got to where I felt like I couldn’t even take a deep breath.

I knew that once I could get myself to cry, that pressure would be relieved and those endorphins would flood me with feelings of peace.

I’ve had conversations with two people recently who are grieving but feel like they can’t cry. Like I felt a few weeks ago, they want to cry but they can’t seem to do it. This made me realize I’m not the only one who experiences this.

I’ve started a list on my phone of “crying triggers” that I can turn to when I want to cry but can’t seem to. None of these things works all the time, which is why I need a long list. I can work my way down the list or just randomly try something from it until I find the thing that will do the trick that particular day. Here is my list:

  • Listening to music. Music is a powerful trigger for me. I have a playlist called “Life after Tom” that is music he loved or music that reminds me of a particular experience we shared. He loved Carsie Blanton, so there are a few of her songs. We went to Old Crow Medicine Show and David Bromberg shows together, so there are songs by them. He never started a motorcycle ride without cranking up the Gourds version of “Gin and Juice,” so that’s there. Buena Vista Social Club’s “Chan Chan” reminds me of our trip to Cuba.
  • Listening to recordings of my late husband’s voice. Had I known he was going to die so young, I would have saved every voice message he left me, but I only have a few random ones from the last couple of years. Even though most of them are just him saying something like, “Hey, wanted to let you know I’m stopping for a drink after work,” just hearing his voice and remembering what normal life with him was like can bring tears.
  • Watching videos of him. I am lucky to have a lot of videos of him, partly because he did a lot of ridiculous things that demanded recording, like challenging his brother to a pogo-stick versus stilts fight. I also have videos of him playing with the dogs, working hard in PT after his stroke, and zipping around in the street in his motorized wheelchair (I love that video because there’s my voice in the background yelling, “Wait, slow down, I can’t keep up!” and “Look to your left!”). These videos often make me laugh while I’m crying, which is often even better than just crying.
  • Looking at photos of him. Two photos in particular get me: one of him with his son from maybe 12 years ago on a trip to Aspen and a more recent one of him with my daughter on a camping trip. I think these two photos get me because they remind me of the loss our kids have experienced and of how proud he was to be a father to both of them.
  • Opening the drawer I call the “smells like Tom drawer.” This is a drawer in the closet full of T-shirts, towels, and other things that smelled like Tom at one point. He’s been dead long enough that nothing in the drawer actually smells like him anymore, but psychologically, these items feel like relics of his. I open the drawer, hold different items, and snuggle them up to my face as though they do still smell like him. I can remember his smell when I do that.
  • Going to a place where I have memories with him. This can be a place in the house, like the bathroom that he meticulously tiled every inch of, or a seemingly random location, like the alley by our house where I was walking one of our dogs one day, heard something, and turned around to find Tom had followed us in his motorized wheelchair. The Denver Art Museum is a solid trigger for me because we had an amazing outing there after his stroke that is full of tender memories for me.
  • Working out, especially if it’s a cardio-only workout where I can kind of zone out. My elliptical is good for this, and running works, too. There’s some research that indicates that during exercise, our emotions may get processed through our bodies.
  • Getting bodywork, such as acupuncture or massage, done. I think this trigger works similarly to working out, tapping into the mind-body connections.

These triggers have worked so well for me the last few weeks that I’m back to crying every day, enjoying the endorphin fix.