being held in our pain

Recently, I posted on Facebook that I have been crying a lot this summer and doing a lot of growing and learning. After doing this, I wondered to myself, “Gee, would that make some people worried about me?” Help! There’s water leaking out of my eyes! Call the plumber! Can we talk about crying, about sadness, about tears, without others becoming concerned for us? I sure hope so.

I recognize I’m a bit biased in this: I’m in a counseling program, and I’m currently doing what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education at a local hospital. I serve as a chaplain, but CPE at its core is an intense self-examination, learning to see your own “stuff,” your own “baggage,” so that you can work it out and learn to be more present for your patients and clients (and also just be a healthier human being). Crying is very much allowed in group and is considered to be a normal, healthy thing. But sometimes I am jolted back to the reality of our culture and realize that for many families, in many situations, crying is shamed and holding sadness and grief for extended periods of time is found unacceptable.

I worked in a daycare for a year before coming to seminary, and it was one of those unexpectedly healing times: I truly think of it as a balm for my soul. Something that was particularly healing was the compassionate holding of the emotions of the children, and allowing them to freely express their feelings, to bawl their eyes out until they had nothing left to give. We didn’t tell them “c’mon now, don’t cry,” or “be a big boy now.” We definitely didn’t tease them with, “you’re not going to cry now, are you??” or use the classic, “If you don’t quit crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” It breaks my heart to hear an adult give a child those lines.

Sometimes, as I held a sobbing child in my arms (regardless of what for: whether they missed mommy or because another kid took their favorite toy; the emotions are real), I would feel a strange sense of wistfulness and longing. Grief, you might say, because we can also grieve the things in our lives that we never had the chance to have. I wish I could have been held like this. I wish when I was little, someone had told me it was okay to cry and had sat with me until I did cry and I would have known that nobody felt weird about it. I don’t know about you, but in my family of origin, we didn’t really cry with each other when we were sad. So when I cry today, in some ways, I’m making up for 20-some odd years of shutting down, of numbing all the feelings that I’d felt.

I’m learning about grief in this summer internship and it strikes me: Grieving, when “properly” done, is really hard to do. Not because somewhere inside, we don’t know what to do or don’t feel things, but because collectively, we as a society don’t allow grieving to happen. It takes a long time. Too long. It’s messy. It’s repetitive. It requires patience and listening ears and steadfast support of loved ones. It requires you to offer yourself grace, of being okay with the sad feelings, even if they happen over and over again, and to not judge yourself for it. Grieving requires us to reach deep down into our wells of compassion, for self and for others.

But it is only through grieving, (“you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you must go through it!”) that we can healthily get to the other side. Sure, we won’t do it perfectly. We’ll still end up with “baggage” that we’ll need to keep unpacking in the future. But please, I ask of you: when you suffer a loss, any kind of loss, allow yourself to feel it. Big or small-death of a loved one, lost a job, broke up, moved, kid graduated high school, or any number of small losses we encounter in everyday life- these losses are real. Even happy things- I got married, I retired- include losses: losses of singleness and freedom, loss of purpose and structure to your day. It’s okay to miss those things too and to feel sad about them.

Do what you need to do. Journal. Talk to a friend. Take a bubble bath. Run. Cry. Just don’t be afraid of the tears. And in the end, it’s lovely to be “held” by someone, just like I got to hold those crying preschoolers: we cry on people’s shoulders, we make phone calls and pour out our hearts, we make plans to spend time with people who know and understand our pain. But don’t forget that we can “hold” ourselves too. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. Accept your pain and don’t try to rush through it. Because you deserve to be treated well and loved… by yourself.

3 thoughts on “being held in our pain

  1. Wow, what an insightful post. I totally get that children should be encouraged to express their emotions in crying and nobody should make them feel that it is unacceptable. However, could you talk more about what you have learned concerning whether it is better not to console a child in a way that spares them pain and the opportunity to cry? Are their some cases when you would console them and some cases not?


  2. Thank you! I hope I am understanding your comment correctly by clarifying: yes, we want to comfort children, but on the other hand, we don’t want to indulge inappropriate or negative-attention-seeking behaviors through responding too much to crying. Is that what you’re getting at with your comment? If so, I would offer several options. If it’s real pain for a “legitimate” reason (e.g., sadness, Mommy left, etc) I would comfort in the normal way. If it’s real pain with an “illegitimate” reason (e.g., upset because they aren’t allowed to do something that’s against the rules / unsafe etc), then I might provide comfort with empathetic and explanatory/boundary-setting listening: “I see that you are really sad right now! You really wish that you could play with all the toys and not have to share. But these toys are your sister’s, as well, and we need to share.” If it seems, to me, like attention-seeking behavior (e.g. throwing a tantrum and child is aware and in control of their choices), I might reflect back to them how I see their behavior. “Wow, you are very mad right now and I see you really want to [insert goal here- get my attention, have candy, whatever]. That’s not the way to express that, so I will wait until you are calmer and then I hope we can talk.” You might/probably would have to move them to a different place or leave the child (safely) until they finish the tantrum- trying to not encourage them with extra attention. And of course when they calm down, you don’t hold it against them and show them you love them regardless of their behavior.
    This all assumes a child of conversing age (maybe 3 and up but definitely varies). And they say “you can’t spoil a baby,” so in that first year, comfort comfort comfort and respond to cries, is my feeling (at least right now). Of course all of this is hard to practice every day, every time, but I think it’s a good place to try and start.

    So if that was what you were asking… the bottom line of it all is that the child still feels heard, understood, and loved, even if you must respond differently to different types of behavior. Thanks for asking and let me know if I “missed” your question!


  3. That was a helpful response, and one that reflects a lot of experience I don’t have. Thank you! Initially, I guess I was wondering if crying is so helpful for children (like they used to say to let your infants crawl as long as possible before they start walking so that it helps their senses of balance later, etc), that care takers might prefer not to console, even if they could. What I hear you saying is that there are many cases where it is best not to console so that young children can learn to manage their own emotions better when it is inappropriate for adults simply to cater to their whims. Yet, you might console them if they are crying for a “legitimate” reason. I guess the question I am left with is, even in the cases where the child is crying for a legitimate reason and you choose to console them, do you still communicate that their crying is okay in that situation too (so that the crying is legitimate and potentially helpful in either situation?). Thanks for the insight!


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