I ran into a friend recently. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, so we were going through the rituals of reconnecting. We hugged; we exchanged the usual volley of questions: How’s everything? What have you been up to? Her eyes, however, weren’t “usual.” They were brimming over with tears that coursed in little rivulets down her cheeks. She brushed them away and carried on without ever a telltale crack in her voice. “Oh, that’s great! I’ve been traveling lately, too. I sold my house last year. Living in a condo makes everything so much less complicated,” and so on.
I wondered if she was terribly allergic to something, or if she’d had eye surgery. I felt awkward and unable to ask, afraid of embarrassing her. Since it was close to noon, we stopped at a nearby cafe for a sandwich. Sitting almost touching, side-by-side at a long counter, I noticed that her tears had dried without leaving a trace. Ragweed, pine pollen?
As we spent this more intimate time together, though, she disclosed the reason for the tears. Her son was in a terrible situation with no conceivable way out, and she felt overwhelmed with worry.
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe I had simply assumed at first they weren’t “real” tears. Why hadn’t I asked, ‘Are you okay?’ I could have let it go if she didn’t want to say. But what had kept me from asking? Her pretense of not crying, despite how obvious it was?
No matter what my failures of friendship that afternoon, I know from experience that tears are good. They make you stronger, not weaker. And a friend’s role is to allow them.
I think of my first date as a widow, two years after my husband’s death. Me, a widow—at 44? The word sounded pitiful. It made me think of cotton handkerchiefs and hand-knitted shawls. I was in Ireland for the fall, and I had met a man in a pub just off the Galway bay. It was a cavernous, crowded place that always smelled like Guinness, tobacco smoke and steaming parsnips. I’d managed, that afternoon, to step into my animated, confident self, not the one who had shakily crossed the Atlantic a week or so earlier and hauled suitcases into an imposing house overlooking the Logh Corrib. I told a joke that made him rock back in his chair and laugh with delight.
Later we walked across the square to a candlelit restaurant with starched white tablecloths and a fire burning in an old stone grate. It was restrained and quiet compared to the pub, almost like a schoolroom. We had soup as a first course—the Irish, I had quickly learned, like to eat hot, rib-sticking things made of pureed root vegetables. I picked up my spoon, then hesitated and looked at this man, pleasant enough with his strong ruddy face, but different. So different from my husband. I felt a rush of strange panic. I didn’t know a single person in Ireland. I was just there, alone. I suddenly felt, again, the enormity of being alone, of feeling alone in the world, as though there was no one I knew deeply anymore or could count on. Not in Ireland, not in Virginia, not anywhere.
My eyes filled with tears that I couldn’t stop. I was horrified—I was crying into my potato soup. The more desperately I tried to blink those tears away, the worse it got. “I’m sorry,” I finally said, and expected the man to glance around, trying to attract the attention of a waiter.
“Excuse me,” he’d say. “My friend isn’t feeling well. Could you bring our bill?” But instead, he contemplated me thoughtfully, steadily. He touched my hand and said, “It’s all right, love.” Then he waited.
“Love” is a gentle term of endearment in Ireland. I hadn’t ever heard it before that night; it was a soothing blanket of a word.
After a few minutes, my feelings of abandonment and fear gave way like thin fog to gratefulness for this man, who could not just tolerate a woman weeping her way through a first date but feel genuinely compassionate towards her.
That’s what we should do for a person swept over with sadness—not fidget uncomfortably, or dash away for a box of tissues, or even grab them up in a stifling hug. Just be there with your empathy and humanity, and wait. Let some of the sadness seep into your own heart, whether you understand fully or not. Your willingness to share the heartache for a little while will show in your face.
Tears aren’t bad for anyone. They’re a part of loving and living in an uncontrollable world, and they actually wash away sadness. There are physiological reasons for this, but it’s enough to say that we feel better after a good cry. And this is the paradox: The more we accept tears, just let them spill down a friend’s face and into her soup, the less frequently they’ll come.