Saturday, August 13, 2011


In my time as a chaplain, I don't know how many times I've heard someone say something like this, "I just have to be strong."

His wife is slipping away, death is near, a husband is in shambles and the words and outlook he chooses are, "I must be strong through this."

A woman sobs over the now lifeless body of her beloved cousin. After caring for her for so long, and after sitting quietly and frightened at her bedside as her cousin died, her response to me is that she must be strong through this.

Time and time again I've heard this. Be strong for momma. Be strong, don't cry. Strength, apparently, is how we're taught to manage our grief.

What I interpret these words to mean is, "I don't want to cry." Strength = no tears. "I'm afraid to cry." "I'm embarrassed to cry."  That's the message.  Tears = weakness.

This is regrettable.

Our society has given us these ideas that somehow, crying at the time of death or tragedy is negative, bad, weak, undesirable or something we can actually avoid. We learn this at an early age. I can recall attending the death of a woman in her mid-20s with two kids. The older one was about 8 years old and said something like, "I'm not going to cry, I'm going to be strong." I was shocked. What 8-year in the world could withhold tears at losing his mother? This one sure wasn't able to; however, he thought he needed to! 

Here's the truth as I see it. It actually takes more strength, more fortitude and a more robust character to emote and do so publicly. This image of the Alpha-male who never cries and has the emotional capacity of a cinder block is completely unhealthy.

The old adage comes to mind: "It has to hurt to heal." The wisdom in this applies to emotional pain as well as physical. When we lose someone close, the American male way to move forward is typically to bottle things up. Tuck away our feelings, never discuss them, and at all cost remain tear-less. Sadly, this American male is the one who will be found in therapy ten or twenty or thirty years down the road still haunted by unresolved grief from losing someone close (parent, spouse, child, etc). The path toward healing for our American male is through those horrible feelings, not around them.

By moving toward, into, engaging and expressing those feelings, healing comes. By moving away, avoiding, dodging and covering them up, we only stunt our growth as humans. This is where that old adage comes into play. Moving into and through grief is painful. It hurts. One man said to me, "It's the worst feeling int he world." And he's probably right. But we must go this direction, through the path of pain, to find healing.

Here's two examples:

Number 1: Leroy Jethro Gibbs. If you've ever watched NCIS, the main character, Gibbs, has been grieving (or rather avoiding his grief) for eight seasons now. The character lost his wife and daughter tragically when they were gunned down by a Mexican drug lord. Afterwards, Gibbs, a Marine sniper, shot and killed the drug lord exacting his revenge. But Gibbs is still grieving. Sadly, he's an emotional ignoramous. It makes for good television, but bad practice. He is completely unwilling to discuss his family's death nor take a look at the feelings that acompany it. Gibbs is sadly very unhealthy. (Thankfully, he's a fictional character.)

Number 2: Joe's wife died earlier this summer while in hospice care. I've been working at a hospice office as one of the chaplains and spent some considerable time with Joe, both before and after his wife's death. Joe openly admitted that after his traumatic time in WWII as a field medic, he bottled up, avoided and hid his emotions from the war, never dealing with what he saw and experienced. He also admitted that he becomes emotional uncontrollably at times when certain war-related topics are brought up. He's never understood why. Joe and I discussed what things will be like for him when his wife dies. He expected to again bottle up the emotions, lock them away and throw away the mental key. But, it was already clear, from the tears on his face that he couldn't wipe away fast enough, that this method wasn't going to work this time. Since her death, Joe has requested more meetings with me. And Joe is learning to grieve. He openly states, "This is new to me." He's a hardened and successful businessman who is choosing to move toward his feelings rather than away. His progress is so visible that it's inspiring. When his tears come, he embraces them, as hard as it might be. And this takes far more strength than avoiding them.

It takes more strength to cry, than it does to hold it in. Of this, I am thoroughly convinced.

One more example, this time a biblical one. One of Jesus good friends named Lazarus died. When Jesus arrived at his tomb he did the manly thing. He saved the day by raising Lazarus from the tomb, avoiding his own emotions and fixing everybody else's sadness. Right? Itsn't that how the story goes?

No. Well, in the end, yes. But!...

I left out one simple, short and yet powerful verse. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of his friend, he wept (Luke 11:35). He didn't become misty-eyed. He didn't shed a single cinematic tear. Jesus wept, sobbed, broke down. He embraced the ful spectrum of emotion. He laughed when it was time to laugh, he was strong when strength was necessary, and he wept when his heart was broken.

What else can I say? It takes more strength to move toward your tears than way from them. So, how about it guys? All my sterotypicall American emotionally stunted men out there, the next time you feel sad, might we give real strength a try?


Erin Miller said...

You need to be teaching chaplains somewhere! Love it, borrowed your idea, but gave you credit!

Vicki Hesse said...

are you a supervisor yet? great post