Don’t You Feel Better After a “Good Cry?”

family life lessons mental health self-awareness wellness Sep 19, 2023

Navigating anticipatory grief with a good cry.

People often say, “I don’t want to start crying because I’m afraid I’ll never stop.” If you deny yourself time to cry, you’ll be denying a precious human gift to help navigate grief and release suffering by inviting the catharsis of tears.

As my son’s heavenly birthday approaches next month and fall leaves begin to turn, I feel the rumblings of anticipation just about now. Even though it’s been years since his death, my anniversary reactions are unpredictable, yet as certain as the coming of the Harvest Moon.

Anticipatory Grief
Have you heard of the term “anticipatory grief?” It’s typically associated with impending loss, like when you have a sick, aging parent and you know death is near. Or, if you have a spouse with cancer and you don’t know how much time you have left to plan for the loss.

Anticipating grief is the mind rehearsing what it will feel like to grieve and the mental preparation necessary as the clock ticks. You can go in and out of looming grief, but you know the event is inevitable.

I experience anticipatory grief every year as I rehearse my feelings for Garrett’s birthday, and then again on the anniversary of his death.

I’ve learned so much over the years through personal experience (and as a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®), and there are things I now do to prepare. For one thing, I don’t fight it; I yield to it. I don’t withhold my feelings, but consciously acknowledge my sadness exists. I then set aside time to honor it.

Have you ever held back tears? Isn’t it painful? It feels as though you’re choking with every swallow. In the first year of grieving, I saw my family doctor because I thought I had something terribly wrong with my throat. He said, “Does it feel like you’re swallowing against a small peach?”

“Yes!” I replied. “It feels like it’s bulging!”

“That’s anxiety, Sandy. You’re taking short breaths and you’re gasping and trying to swallow. I think what your body is doing is reacting to grief.”

There it was. No matter how hard I tried to withhold my tears, it was there inside of me, and my body reacted.

I don’t stop my tears anymore. I now make plans for my “good cry.” I set aside a day with my journal and a cappuccino, sit in my backyard, and write a letter to my beautiful child.

I tell him everything I want him to know about these past years… and in particular, the joy of his sister naming my first grandchild after him!

Now I get to say Garrett’s name every single day, and there’s no longer the tinge of sadness when I say it. As I write to him about his nephew, I can see his smile in the sun, the moon, and the stars as I imagine him just as he was before he died at 16. He would be so proud his name is a legacy to such a precious child.

Anniversary Triggers
It’s normal and natural for grief to intensify at certain times of the year

If you’re like me, it’s those birthdays and anniversaries that we dread. It’s that feeling of emptiness and wishing that the past had been different. Loss changes every chapter in your book of life. It goes from what you thought your life might be, to something devastating beyond measure. You are forced to rewrite your whole future, and the hole in your heart becomes a scar forever.

But, if you write to your precious loved one, you can pour your heart out, and cry your tears. The sorrow and pain reveal how much you loved them… but then you must find ways to tell them the good things that have happened since they’ve been gone.

You can have a good, happy life after loss, even though it doesn’t feel like it at first. Months, sometimes years go by and you wonder if your natural smile will return, or your zest for life. All it takes is one small indication that happiness is still inside you. Perhaps it’s the smile of your grandchild or the pleasure of an inspiring movie. If you find yourself feeling good even for a moment, it’s the promise of more to come.

As you rehearse anticipatory grief, tell your precious child, your beloved spouse, or whomever you’ve lost that you’re doing well… that you’re learning to smile again, and you’re reclaiming life. Isn’t that what they would want?

Physical Benefits of the “Good Cry”
Research shows that crying activates the parasympathetic nervous system by releasing oxytocin and endorphins, which help soothe and relax. These chemicals help you feel good and may ease both physical and emotional pain.

You’ve survived what you’re experiencing so far, and so have I. We are stronger than we ever imagined, aren’t we? Yes, it’s painful, but it’s there for a reason. It’s our new normal where we learn to live with the thoughts and feelings of loss as a life passage. It’s just who we are at this stage of life.

No human is immune to loss. Some losses fall in the natural order of life, but even that leaves us with a hole in our hearts, and it’s okay to cry.

I stopped fearing grief when I recognized it has a rhythm. It rolls in and rolls out. There’s a low point and a high point. The high points are when you feel you can’t bear it, you hug your knees, curl up in a ball, and let the tears flow. The low points might be just a sigh or a shiver, but it’s there, and you feel it.

When Do You Recover?
There’s a mistaken idea that grief should be on a timeline and if you cross over the “acceptable norm” people have in their heads (typically one year), you should feel better forever. This is simply not true.

Grief doesn’t have a time limit, nor is it always predictable, nor will you serve enough time that you won’t feel the pain ever again.

The truth is… no matter how many years it’s been, there will be days when your loss will knock you to the ground. But remember… just like all cycles, there’s relief around the bend. It’s the promise that there are more good days ahead, really wonderful days, and the bad days diminish in numbers.

Thank goodness for that Harvest Moon. It reminds me that all life has cycles, and once again I get to experience another year of honoring my heavenly son on his birthday. I feel the deep sorrow of Garrett’s loss but remind myself that my love for him is so deep it will never die. I hold onto it with everything I’ve got.

It took me years to get the hang of it, but I’m ready for my good cry whenever it appears. It makes me feel connected to him as my deep, sometimes painful love becomes a refreshing wash of tears… and I remind myself I am the luckiest mom in the world to have had him for 16 years, 3 months, 10 days…. And beyond.

I am an author and Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® who writes about the ongoing changes that occur through loss and trauma. Please share this post if you know someone who needs greater understanding, hope, and encouragement in their grief journey.

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