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The inevitability of tears


'All Souls Day' by Chris JohnstonYou're standing in a circle of women, chatting about winter boots or a place to get good coffee, when someone asks you a simple question and grief hits you over the head like a baseball bat.

Suddenly you're sobbing, the school bell is ringing, children are streaming out of the building, and people you barely know are looking at you with kind eyes and rubbing your shoulders.

At least, that's what happens to me.

When my grandparents died earlier this year, I barely cried at their funerals. While reading aloud at my grandmother's, I glanced out at the congregation and saw my grandfather's face shiny with tears, looking up at me so gentle and trusting with sad brown eyes like a spaniel's. My voice cracked, but I'm a good girl so I held it together, finished the reading, and quietly sat down.

Eight weeks later, at his funeral, I silently wept; I couldn't be the only one racked with sobs. I avoided everyone's eyes. As grief ballooned in my throat I looked through the glass wall to the birds outside and watched them flit between the grass trees. As I lost myself in them, the tears slowly ebbed.

There were no glass walls at my mother's funeral, no little birds to watch. I had been staying at my father's house. Most of my clothes were at my house but I couldn't remember what I owned and couldn't think what to send for. So I found a funny old black skirt and borrowed my sister's leather jacket; I wore ugly shoes. We sat in the front row of the church, six hundred people behind us, and every time I moved the jacket creaked.

When I started to weep and raised a hanky to my face, the leather shrieked and groaned. The sound ricocheted around the great emptiness and I felt twelve hundred eyes drilling into my back; six hundred people saw that I didn't know how to dress for a funeral; six hundred people pitied me. So I lowered my arm and sat still, eyes straight ahead as the snot and tears ran silently down, and like a child in church played all the games I knew to make the time pass.

After a year, or maybe it was two, the service was over. Under cover of the organ I blew my nose and wiped my face and stumbled out, tummy sucked in, back straight, our row the first to leave. I wanted to be alone. But instead the six hundred came one by one and shook my hand or hugged me, and said how sorry they were.

I became giddily cheerful and Teflon-bright as their unwanted hugs and concern ran off me and puddled on the floor. They weren't the important ones; they hadn't visited when she was sick; and I was so angry that I just jiggled around and smiled and pretended nothing mattered. Finally, finally it was all over and I could go home, throw off the jacket, put on my pyjamas and sit there numb. Did we do a crossword? a jigsaw? Did we watch a movie? I don't remember; it was ten years ago now.

But I find myself wondering why I was so contained each time, why so polite. I should have let loose. I should have shrieked and wailed and torn my hair and rent covered myself in ashes. Instead I sat tight, with a hanky dabbed here, an emotion stifled there. I bottled up hot tears like jam, and firmly screwed down the lid.

But they won't be stopped. Instead, they come later, inconveniently, in the supermarket, on a crowded tram, when three generations of women sit next to you in a coffee shop, when a bird drops down between two buildings or a certain slant of light stabs you in the eye, when you see a loved one walking and realise it's a stranger and your loved one is dead, when you're washing the dishes and you glance down and the hands in the sink are theirs, when you're cycling at night all alone, all alone; then grief roars up and hits you like a tidal wave.

Or when the mother of a little boy you read with is killed in an accident and his school has the jitters and shakes; and later that day at another school, your daughter's school, you're hanging around waiting for pick up and someone casually asks how your morning was and you suddenly feel kicked in the guts. Your voice cracks and your eyes start with tears and there's nothing you can do to stop them.

Four weeks, three months, ten years later. It doesn't matter how long it's been. Sooner or later, a thousand times over, you're gonna sob.

Alison SampsonAlison Sampson is the mother of three girls. She studied theology at Whitley College in Melbourne, is a regular contributor to Zadok, and blogs at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com.

Topic tags: grief, death, funeral, tears, emotion, all souls day, day of the dead, Alison Sampson



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Existing comments

Thank you
I sit here at the computer and you reminded me of my mother
We were not close for many reasons but suddenly at 75 I feel sad that she died at 53 and missed seeing her gorgeous grandchildren grow up and missed seeing her great-grandchildren
It has never seemed fair and the tears come as I think of her
Beautiful piece

Judy George | 01 November 2010  

How very true and so courageous to write it for all to see.
The normality is what struck me most. Take care and go gently now.
Rosemary K

Rosemary Keenan Gwelup WA | 01 November 2010  

Thank you for this moving piece. I also am very contained, and this gives me hope that one day I too will be able to cry.

Bethwyn | 01 November 2010  

One of the costs of growing very old - as I have done - is the absence of so many friends and loved ones, already departed.
And here is a home-made remedy that may help others to ease the pain of sudden stabs of sadness: remember them as they really were. Not perfect but with weaknesses and strengths; with enthusiasms and times of boredom. And occasionally,silently,talk to them,cheerfully.

Even even those of uncertain faith (like me) can hope their real existence continues and maybe, sometime, there will be reunion.

Bob Corcoran | 01 November 2010  

"I bottled up hot tears like jam, and firmly screwed down the lid." Thank you Alison for such a beautifully written piece, and for being so wonderfully candid. Many I'm sure will find themselves in here somewhere, struggling to know how to grieve their loss. I do. The reality of grief sneaks up on you when you least expect it, for sure. These are especially lovely words for All Souls' Day too, aren't they? Thank you once more.

Richard | 01 November 2010  

Thanks, you described such a universal experience, and my own story, so poignantly.

Carol | 02 November 2010  

Beautiful writing Alison - and how true it is..... Today being Day of the Dead, I too am thinking about my people no longer here. I am not religious, but I take any opportunity to remember them celebrate their lives.

There is no right or wrong time for tears. If we were all taught this, the world may be a better place. xx

Jane | 02 November 2010  

Wow, Alison. Thank you.

Jenny Gillan | 07 November 2010  

oh Alison......how do you just find the right words. Thank you for allowing me to have a little sob of happy and sad remembrances (funny word) occasionally, you are wonderful and do me the world of good.

Helen Sandy | 11 November 2010  

A profound piece you have written here - all the emotion, love, guilt, and forgiveness came traveling back. You captured it all, rmemebered it all for so many I am sure. They all come back, the sobs, and rightfully so - for we shall always remember - let this tide wave on! Thank you!

Suzanne Simonovich | 01 November 2015  

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