Jackie Kennedy and Coretta Scott King were our nation’s role models for mourning in the 1960’s and in the decades since. They were praised for their strength and stoicism, their courage and grace, and rightly so. They were great role models for our nation at a time of great unrest and anxiety, but I would say they were not the role models we needed when it came to grieving our individual losses.
Prior to Mrs. King’s death of ovarian cancer in 2006, she said she regretted not taking the time to grieve and mourn after her husband’s death. She attributed her illness to unresolved and suppressed grief. Her stoicism and strength came at great cost she said. Science bears this assertion out, with research proving how trauma can get stuck in the body -- “the physical effects on the organs go on unabated until they demand notice when they are expressed as illness.” (The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk.) Unexpressed and unacknowledged grief eventually manifests in one way or another and the longer it takes to be expressed the more harm can be caused.
One of the things we’ve noticed at Imagine is how often people apologize when they cry. Why do we do this? Why do we feel the need to leave the room and hide when we are bereft? Why are we embarrassed to “still be grieving” when it’s been a year since the death of a loved one? There are so many historical and cultural aspects to this complicated question.
When we think of the construct of masculinity and our directives to our young sons that “boys don’t cry” or “don’t be a cry baby” what we are really doing – inadvertent as it may be – is robbing our sons of their full humanity, of the full depths of their sorrows and the full expressions of their joys. Girls are not immune to this either, as we live in a society that prizes strength over vulnerability, and sees human frailty as a liability. Tears are the expression of this perceived weakness. But what if our tears meant more? What if our vulnerabilities were the seat of our strength?
A couple of years ago, my friend Amy gave me “The World According to Mister Rogers” for Christmas. On the inside flap Mister Rogers’ writes, “People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’ I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.'”
A little boy attending one of our support groups said to another little boy, “tears are good, they let the sadness out.” This little boy gave permission to his friend to cry, to freely express his emotions – the good, the bad, the ugly – without judgment or recriminations. That is the simple and perfect wisdom of children: Tears are good!
As I reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy, I love that this holiday is a day of service, but I almost wish it were also a day of mourning, a day when we all had permission to cry. For everyone we've ever loved who is no longer on the planet. In that spirit of loving vulnerability I’d like to say, Happy Birthday, Dr. King.
Imagine is a free year-round children’s grief support center that serves NJ children age 3-18 and young adults 18-30 who are grieving the death of a parent or sibling, or who are living with a parent of sibling with a life-altering illness. Imagine also provides grief education and training for thousands of teachers, parents, coaches, youth and other adults annually.