Teardrop-shaped aspen leaves flickered against the blue sky as I wiped my cheeks, looking up to help stop the flow. Instead of hanging out with the other hospice volunteer trainees during our break, I’d fled to this outdoor haven to stop weeping and call my mom.
When I began my journey volunteering with hospice, people’s sadness and loss as they related their journeys echoed through my body and left me sobbing. I get caught up in stories. In cinemas, you’ll find me sobbing uncontrollably into a shredded tissue in the back row.
So, I knew that, when called upon to act in difficult and sad situations like when a loved one died, I would become a useless, tear-leaking mass.
And that’s just not helpful.
But I was resolved to do this work. What would I do? How could I manage that weird tangle of emotions and be useful in these moments? How could I help others when I felt powerless to change this situation?
Those same questions rise in me as the Russian army invades Ukraine. And my mother’s advice remains true.
On the phone that day, I questioned her, a minister who had learned to deal with managing her emotions, having had to preach at funerals and sit with families while their loved ones died. How do you manage that kind of sadness? How do you hold back the tears?
“You don’t,” she said. “You just have to learn to do your job while crying. They don’t want a robot. They want a human to be with them. But you can’t forget that you have a job to do. And you need to do that job despite the tears and emotions. So if you can’t stop crying, just learn how to do it while crying. They’ll understand.”
Comforted, I headed back inside to join my new friends and colleagues. I began the journey to become someone who cried while being useful, productive, supportive.
Learning how to support others while also allowing our emotions and vulnerability to show is hard, especially when we’ve been trained by society to suppress those feelings. We put a brave face on it. We stiffen our upper lip. We brace ourselves. We spend a lot of time stifling tears.
But stifling our tears also pushes our vision inward. Allowing the tears to flow encourages us to look outside of ourselves. To focus on those people who need us. To take action even as the emotions flow through our bodies. To support our clients, colleagues, friends, family, and those who just need our help.
And, if nothing else, to find a tissue.
While everyone has their own path to take in this process, my trick for dealing with the sadness that threatened to overwhelm me is to focus on the other being. To walk my awareness past the embarrassment of my red nose and wet cheeks and direct it toward the person or animal who needs my help. When the logical part of my brain isn’t thinking “Oh! I can’t believe I’m crying in front of people I don’t know,” it can then evaluate the situation, notice what’s happening around me, and discover the next steps to take.
In letting the tears flow, I’ve learned so much more than if I held them back. Knowledge of how a system works. Delight in a small bird perching in the tall grass. Rejection of floral arrangements that honored the dead because their mourners couldn’t watch the flowers die too.
Seriously, people. Send a potted plant. Or donate that money to a cause they loved. Don’t make those poor folks watch something else die.
Actually, maybe skip the plants altogether depending on the color of the survivor’s thumb.
Learning how to surf those waves of emotion gave me the strength and focus to be in the moment, strong and sure support for those around me. Sharing stories while I go through old family photos with my cousin. Advocating for my wife when she lies sick in a hospital bed. Being a comforting presence for my mother as she buries her sister, my aunt who made the best chocolate chip cookies EVER, on a cold Arkansas morning.
And, frankly, we can’t do this all the time. I often drop back into the sterile hush of holding my tears in check. The deadening lull of ignoring my sorrows and fears. The grey sedation of avoidance.
We must rest, recover, and renew our souls so we can again see the bright colors through eyes washed with tears.
I’m not advocating complete immersion in the news or doom-scrolling until your fingers fall off. Just giving you a way to begin to function as this horrifying deluge of information continues to flow. We may not be able to directly help those fighting in Ukraine, but we can certainly learn and listen, see the beauty and support those closest to us, even as we weep.