Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Can You Cry Too Many Tears?

This will be a long one. Settle back and relax.

Today is the holiday that the Jewish people (those who observe it) dread for three weeks. Some people dread it all year long. FD says there should be a holiday that everyone dreads.

I'm not sure I follow his logic, but ours is certainly the religion for everything.

Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, is a day that marks destruction. Like every holiday there are certain laws to observe. The law specifically associated with this holiday is about tears. Crying.

You're supposed to make yourself cry and get in touch with the loss of the Holy Temples of Jerusalem, built and destroyed by conquering nations. We lost the first in 586 BCE, two thousand, twelve hundred years ago, to the Babylonians who desecrated the holy walls and holy vessels; the second in 70 AD to the Romans who seconded the motion.

We grieve the martyrdom of people of other eras (think Spanish Inquisition, for one) who died rather than convert, and we remember every pogrom, especially the Holocaust.

Our history is full of tears.

On Tisha b'Av we get in touch with the loss of holy land and what are thought to be the dwelling places of the Old Mighty. (That's how my grandfather referred to Him. ) When we're in Israel we say that prayers are a local call. The Jews trace a relationship and ownership to the holy places of Israel to Biblical times, fifteen hundred to two thousand years B.C.E.

In any case, a huge mosque sits atop the spot that Jacob wrestled with an angel and won but walked away, limping.

This is also where his grandfather Abraham said to the Old Mighty, "Sure, you want my son, you can have my son, my only son from this particularly incredible mother, Sarah, my helper, my friend, my companion, the woman who has grown old with me. "

The midrash (an explanation, also a few thousand years old) tells us that Isaac was no baby at the time he was offered as a sacrifice per the Old Mighty's request. Sarah, when she heard about the possibility that Abraham would do this, had a heart attack, probably at the age of 103. We think Isaac was thirteen years old at the time.

Bound, his father readying himself with a knife for slaughter, Isaac looked up at the sky and the Old Mighty opened up the heavens so that His young servant alone could see beyond the stars. The tears of the on-looking angels fell into his eyes, which is the reason Isaac is said to have been near-sighted for the rest of his life. Most of his descendants are, too.

Anyway, the angels cried and the Old Mighty had mercy and crying is a theme in our culture.

I believe I told you that my mother said, "Cry, it feels good, it's good to get them out." I'm sure she said it in Yiddish, too, but I've forgotten the Yiddish.

And I've told you that there is not an infinite number of tears. Eventually you will stop. If you need to cry, cry. At least I don't think there's an infinite number of tears. I could be wrong. Has anyone done the research on this? I don't think so.

The rabbis say, Cry, for sobbing is all that the Old Mighty really does hear. In other words, He's sick of words. And who can blame Him? We are all talk, are we not?

Which is why talk therapies, especially rational therapies tend to work, but it's also why we need them to talk out our many obsessions.

But there IS such a thing as too many tears, if not for this holiday.

The story goes that a woman could not stop crying for the loss of her husband. She was irreconcilable. Her family brought her to the holiest rabbi in town who told her that she shouldn't be sad. Her tears went to good use. The Old Mighty gathered all of her tears in a cup, every one of them, and when a terrible calamity threatened destruction to the world, he used her tears to avert the tragedy. This calmed her down.

She could stop crying.

So sometimes it's good to cry, and sometimes it's best to stop. I used to tell my kids what my mother told me, advice I hope they will tell my grandchildren, that they should squirt out a few tears now and then, maybe every day.

I still tell my patients this. But this doesn't apply to people who can't stop crying, like the woman in the parable. So without a rabbi to tell you the importance of your tears, how do you stop?

Therapy's an interesting process.

Sometimes it helps to look over your life and find the things that you forgot to cry for or weren't mature enough to cry for or had been taught that you shouldn't cry for, but you should have cried for when they happened. You should have cried at the time but you didn't.

So for example, some little kids, upon the loss of a parent are told that it's okay, they'll be well cared for and they need not cry. They're told they should buck up at the funeral. Be a man, be adult. Be strong. Kids grow up thinking this is the way we're supposed to be all of the time. Strong.

Then they wonder why, having stored up so many tears, when they find themselves at a vulnerable place in life, that the floodgates let loose and they feel as if they're drowning in their own tears. I tell these patients they have to mourn those old losses.

They're not all deaths, either, these losses. You know how to list your losses. Loss of innocence, loss of love, loss of functioning, loss of health, loss, loss, loss. Talking about losses puts those tears into place.

Stoicism can be a problem. Stoicism helps when you get rejection letters, and it's never good to feel sorry for yourself, really, so stoicism has it's place. But holding back feelings as a general approach to life can definitely be a set up for problems.

Therefore it is nice to know that most cultures build in ways other than stoicism to handle Big Losses. (We'll talk about the smaller, annoying losses as they pop up in other posts. Let's talk about the big losses here).

The psych literature tells us that Jews handle death nicely, so it's convenient that I'm Jewish. Maybe there are some universal truths for everyone in our customs and laws.

Let's start with a funeral. I'll go back to Aunt C's funeral. You last read about her when I visited her in the hospital. It made me feel so good, connecting with Aunt C, even though I knew she was heading towards hospice. Anyway, she passed away soon after that post.

In our culture, at the funeral service people lclose to the person who passed away talk to an assembly of friends and relatives (like in most cultures I think). My aunt had eight eulogies, one more beautiful than the next. One of my aunt's children, cousin Bobbie, said to me, Mom would have loved the service. She would have loved what we said, and she would have loved that the day was sunny and everyone came out to say goodbye.

At the funeral everyone is supposed to ask forgiveness from the mais, the person who passed away. So that's therapeutic for the community of mourners, too.

Then there's the shiva. If you're a mourner, a first degree relative or spouse, you stay home from work for seven days so that people in the community can visit you and you can talk about the life that's lost. People cry, sure, but it's hard for them to cry non-stop when there are so many visitors.

It's not a law that a mourner has to cry. You can tell who's in mourning because the males don't shave that first week and everyone in mourning tears their shirt before the funeral and wears it all week long. Crying during shiva isn't a requirement. It doesn't have to be.

So when my cousin's mom passed away, her sister, my mom, sat shiva with her two only other living sibs and my cousin Bobbie and her two sibs.

I cooked. The community cooked. Jews are all about food, at the end of the day. Food is life.

My cousin Bobbie had an incredible relationship with my aunt. They really were best friends. Now that the formal ritual is over, the funeral, the seven days, the month, she's into the year of grieving for a parent. In that year you don't buy new clothes or go to movies or concerts. I am quite sure my cousin cries often for her mother, expecting, when she picks up a ringing phone to hear my aunt's voice.

It's very surreal, you know. One day you can talk on the phone to someone, and the next day you can't. I'm sure my cousin picks up the phone to call her mother, starts dialing, pauses and puts the receiver back into the cradle.

Now that we're a couple of months past the shiva, she's probably crying a lot. She's supposed to stop after the year is up.

Because there is this prescribed grieving, at the end of the year a person does feel that the job is done. They can stop crying. Not for good, of course not. But the person who has passed away has been accorded respect, and a mourner feels he or she has truly mourned.

Immediate losses are hard for most people, especially that first year, and tears come often if we let them, whereas once they're a thing of the past, it's harder to remember, harder to grieve.

Which is why this holiday, Tisha B'Av is so hard for most people to wrap their heads around. It requires reflection, memory, a very long memory. For Holocaust survivors the loss still feels immediate. For the rest of us, it's harder.

But what do we do about it when crying is getting old already? That's the problem for most people. People who come to see me usually don't have to make themselves cry. They can't stop crying. And, depending upon the person and the context, too much crying can make one sick, not better.

Which is why the docs are forever telling you, Take these medicines. Happy is better. (My motto, by the way). I can't say, Take these medicines because I'm not a medical doctor.

But for the record, if a medical doctor recommends medication, I'll support that decision. And legally, therapy docs have to tell you to get a med eval, a medical evaluation to see if you need medication if you can't stop crying.

So consider that. And sure, get therapy. Grieve the past losses. There is an endpoint to the grief and suffering in any one person's past. Clean out some of it with a caring professional.

There aren't enough rabbis in the world, certainly, to take care of all of those tears.

Copyright 2007, therapydoc


Juggling Mother said...

I've been to two Jewish funerals. One for my brother - he was 25. it was a liberal shul funeral, which is lucky because we were all, naturally, fairly inconsolable. The rabbi babbled on and on about how it was Gods will and rubbish like that that a) really pissed us off b) totally did not make it any better that he had died at 25 years old, less than a week before a major personal & pofessional event in his life, and c) used up all the time we had for the service so that we couldn't hear from his real friends and family.

I detested every second of the funeral, and it made the grief worse rather than better. I still get upset thinking about it now - and it was 5 years ago.

The second jewish funral I attended was my grandmothers. She was old when she died, and had been physically frail for several years and mentally gone for three, so no-one was really grief-stricken in that way. As we walked in, we were split into men & women and sent to opposite sides of the room, so none of had the person we loved best with us as support. There were no seats, the service was all in hebrew and the rabbi made no reference to her as an individual (that i could tell).

Crying in those situations is good, but imo the jewish service does not help that process in any way. Sitting shiva is generally a chore - if you are truely upset the last thing you need is a bunch of almost strangers hanging around your house for a week, and if not, you'd rather get on with your life! Most of us do not live in that kind of culture any more, and hanging onto tradition at times of stress will not change that.

therapydoc said...

JUGGLING: How terrible! My feeling, of course, is that the way your family has experienced losses was not within the tradition, even though everyone "sat shiva."

It's true that there's tremendous variation in the religion and in the way in which customs have changed.

When I said that "the psych literature" is pro-Jewish custom, it is only when the custom is customary, not as it has evolved over the past century.

That said, it has been suggested by many rabbis I've heard speaking at funerals for young people, that there is nothing that can make it good. It's VERY hard for a clergyperson to take any of the sting away when a young person is being lowered into the ground.

Who wouldn't be angry?

Thanks for writing.

Guilty Secret said...

TherapyDoc, I just love your work!

There were so many interesting parts to this... tears are all about loss and when I think of the times I have really, really cried it is all about something lost. I feel like I have a new way to explain my crying to my other half now.

I loved what you said about there not being an infinite number of tears, too.

Really interesting. Thanks :)

chana said...

Beautifully written. It got me Right There.

therapydoc said...

GUILTY: Thanks so much! Sometimes, when there's so much to say on a subject, I get lost and assume I lose all of you, too. So it's nice to know that you don't mind wandering around with me.

therapydoc said...

CHANA, thanks.

Anonymous said...

This was really beautiful!
I really enjoyed this blog--:)

Familydoc said...

Sarah Imenu was 127 years old at the time she passed, presumably from the shock of the Akeidah (b'feirish at the beginning of Parsha Chaye Sarah). Since she conceived at age 90 (also b'feirish), it comes out that Isaac was 36, not thirteen.

You can write your own comment for correction rather publishing what I wrote above, which will be incomprehensible to your readers.

Otherwise good post.

therapydoc said...

Incomprehensible to whom? My readers are used to words like b'feirish, but I usually say, "sounds like- bih-fair-ish" .

Thanks for the correction.

Chana said...

Everything OK in your world? I hope you're just on vacation or something! :)

therapydoc said...

Chana, Yes, I'm fine. Was on vacation. You'll catch bits and pieces of that as soon as they're good enough to print!

Mick said...

Thanks for writing this. I have such a need to cry, but it seems little ability to. I don't know how to make myself cry.

I accidentally did it today while listening to Joe Jackson's song, "My Hometown," a lament to his lost childhood.

I need to find other cues, too.

Mick said...

Thanks for writing this; I feel I have such a deep need to cry, but little capacity to. How do you make yourself cry when you can't?

Earlier today I happened to listen to Joe Jackson's song, "My Hometown," a lament to his lost childhood. The floodgates opened.

I need more cues.

therapydoc said...

Yeah, music is great for this. I tell people who have trouble crying to get in touch with their eyes, too. Focus there, the rest will come.

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts