Why do we cry and how can I stop?

Tear crystals
Tears of Timeless Reunion
©2013 Rose-Lynn Fisher
Used with permission

The history of tears

As the days roll on, ferrying the memory of my mother farther down the dark river of loss, I’m surprised that I can go whole hours without crying; even, on rare occasion, a whole day goes by with few or no tears.

Of course, it wasn’t that way in the beginning. My tears started before my mother passed away; they started during the long journey she made towards death, as we accompanied, passing milestones we tried to ignore.

We didn’t want to recognize those milestones, those way markers pointing to a place we all feared. Instead, we talked of the future, what she would do when she got “her legs under her.” She’d get the garden back into shape; she’d visit me in the mountains, swim in the lake; she’d balance her checkbook, give the house a good cleaning.

Meanwhile, we did what we could to help her. We supported her as she struggled to breach the barrier where carpet met linoleum; we spooned soft eggs and applesauce into her mouth; we laughed with her at yawns that preceded sudden mid-sentence sleep;  we reasoned with her as she hallucinated in the ICU; and we apologized over and over and over as she grimaced and moaned in pain at home as we shifted her in the rented hospital bed.

At first, not wanting to upset her, I wept in secret; then it was no longer a secret and I wept wherever I was. Washing dishes. Sitting on the toilet. Going to the bank. At last, caring for her in her last days, I no longer knew that she could see the tears, and I often sobbed as I gave her morphine to ease her pain. We all wept, the whole family, faces chapped from tears.

The Parting

When she finally left her body, I thought I would be relieved. The weeping would stop.

But I wasn’t and it didn’t. The sudden howling loss of her was an atmospheric river that stalled over my heart and threw buckets of hurt at me.

Now, nearly two months after she left, I no longer feel like I’m drowning; it’s not in the present tense. It happened. The flood filled the valley. Past tense. I’ve drowned. I sink under fathoms of grief. And, although it happens less regularly, I still fall into tears at a moment’s notice.

How is it that I’m still able to cry? Is there no end to these tears?

Topography of Tears

Online I searched the oracle Google to find a remedy for crying. I found a photography project—The Topography of Tears—by artist Rose-Lynn Fisher. You can see one of her pictures at the top of this post. Fisher photographed tears through an optical microscope, translating various emotions through the crystalline structure of water shed from eyes. She took pictures of tears of laughter, grief, hope, and even waterworks from that most mundane of routine jobs: slicing onions. The black and white images read like photographs taken from an airplane of the landscape far below.

I asked Fisher what she had noticed about the difference between tears of grief and tears from other emotions. She wrote to me: “In the course of the project I saw that there are not inherent categories of how each emotion appears via its tears; there are many variables that influence the image. For me the point was what I could see in the tear, how I found visual symbols and associations that somehow spoke directly into my heart, that gave me solace at some deep level; these are the mysteries I don’t understand but do appreciate.”

It seems that tears from great emotion differ from a mere watering of the eyes. Research indicates that tears from sadness brim with hormones, chemical compounds that resemble natural painkillers. Certainly these tears of intense grief are like no tears I can recall shedding. Gummy and thick, they coat my face with a sticky veneer. They interest me. Is there something wrong with me that I observe their nature as they fall?

If there are painkillers in the tears, I’m not sure what help they are, sticking to my face like jelly; that isn’t the part of me feeling the hurt. The ache is in my chest, a hollowing, an erosion into my throat, my arms and legs. The pain goes nowhere near my face.

Do I absorb tears through my cheeks, through my eyeballs? Are they so potent that when these drops roll into my mouth, they ease my pain? That would be strong medicine indeed. Should I collect these tears, decant them, and drink them down in great gulps to quell the hurt?

Shifting simile

Or have I already imbibed them? I imagine myself as a hollow torso, fronted by clear glass. An aquarium of tears through which orange-gold fishes swim, fading in and out of murky water, nibbling at limpets and snails stuck fast to my ribs. And there I am, buried like a flounder at the bottom of the tank.

Sometimes I wonder if the tears I shed—the tears the whole family shed—created a river that helped wash my mother away. Do the dying need our tears? Do they ease passage, reducing the friction that holds the soul to the body? Or do tears help only the bereaved? This aquarium of grief reduces noise, keeps at bay the hubbub of the world.

As the days pass, I find I’m no longer always like a flounder, hidden under sand and googling life from eyes that flow with tears like an underwater spring. Life means I have to dislodge myself, engage with the world.

These days I’m more like a diving bell spider that lives under water, surfacing to trap a snifter of oxygen, then sounding to the bottom where I hide. I’ve built a little bubble in this salty aquarium, a pocket of air where I can work and eat, and even play. A little.  It’s not much of a simile shift, but it’s something.













Someone left my heart out in the rain


As my mother’s liver failed her and she floated away from us (was it on the river of our tears?), the long drought broke in California. While mama died in the living room, outside the rain sluiced down soaking ground that only a few months before had cracked into geometric flakes as it shrank away from itself. So much rain fell that the ground swelled back into itself as particles of soil—clay, silt, loam, and spongy organic matter—soaked up moisture and became a semi-solid mud. Christmas was wet; we couldn’t go outside, even if we had wanted to.

Or did we go out? I can’t remember. It seems like perhaps we did. Did we walk out in the Baylands?  It seems unlikely that we would have left her. But it had been a family habit for a long time, to walk by the Bay on holidays, even in rough weather. Did we go on Christmas day? My mind is a blank; I’m losing the last days my mother was alive. My brain is darkening the jangling nightmare of the hospital, blurring the memory of slow, frightening days at home as we waited for her to go. I’m not altogether ready for that amnesia.


Since my mother left, rain has fallen every week, sometimes every day. The big creeks and rivers in the flats are above flood stage; rills of silver water lace through the pastures in the foothills, and as I drive through the mountains, I surge through sheets of water that flow across the highway. Waterfalls cut the canyon walls and bring rock and dirt tumbling across both lanes.

I approve of this rainy weather. California needs the water; during the last few summers we’ve gone from being the Golden State to being the Slightly-Gray State, the tawny grasses that grow across the state charcoaled by heat and dryness. We need the rain. And I admit, it suits my mood. Grievous weather.

The rain does keep me inside, which I don’t like. I sit at the dining table and look out through the branches of the bull pine, admiring the water that drips down the grooves in the needles and forms chains of wet round drops along the slender green lines. Clouds often blow across the mountain, and the view through the tree shifts and fades into white so that I can’t see the grove of tall ponderosas at the base of the little valley we overlook. Then the wind picks up and the clouds evaporate and I watch the trees tilt from the wind. They are so tall that I worry about them falling, but the long line of them so far has held.

As have I, surprisingly. When my mother first passed, it seemed like a black wind ripped me off my pins, weakened my fastenings to the earth. Not being as strong as a ponderosa, I feel to the ground quite often, a rubbly pile of sobs. But I got back up. I had to.

Looking across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at 6 a.m. Canada was just a low dark stretch across the water.

Rain is falling tonight as I write this, a heavy warm rain that’s melting the snow in the high country and tickling the tree frogs in the valley so that they sing songs of lust and love every night. The rain softens the sharp edges of my hurt.

Saturday we are supposed to have sun. I’m a little worried about what that might do to my equilibrium; I’ve got a shakey balance going on between how much I grieve and how much rain is falling. I’m afraid sunny skies might tip the balance. Fortunately, there is more rain in the forecast.


The scent of grieving

Labrador retriever
This is Kayla, who—with her person Marie—goes to the hospital and gives doggie love to nurses, doctors, and students. She’s not part of the blog post, except that many times I have sat on the office floor petting Kayla, and I know how generous a dog can be when you need love.

If I were a dog, I’d be a Labrador retriever. I live by my nose; I smell things that are apparently invisible to other humans. From my perspective as a hyper-smeller, the rest of humanity’s noses are blind. I see with my eyes, but I orient by my nose. Scent has color, form, description.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into my parents’ house after two weeks away was that I could no longer smell her.

When my mom was alive, the house always smelled like somebody was baking something yummy—apples, cookies, pie, cake—even after her illness forced her out of the kitchen and she stopped cooking. While she was alive there was a clean vanilla scent to the house, even when I marked the sour yellow of infection in her blood; even when her breath gave away how ill she was (although she masked how bad she felt with smiles); even when, at the end of her life, the sickly sweet purple smell of the poppy told a story of pain. The dominant scent in her home was of vanilla, butter and sugar.

In her life, she wore no manufactured scent (we’re all allergic) other than her soaps and lotions and creams (all scentless). The apple pie smell was simply her scent, a soft buff orange-pink color, a scent with a coral hue

Now, a month after she left us, the house smelled like my dad. It wasn’t a bad smell. It was just different. Masculine, sharp, more pungent. A brown and green scent. It makes sense. He’s filling space that her death left empty.

My home was built on the architecture of my parents, two pillars that held up my childhood and to be honest, much of my adulthood. Now my father is the only thing holding up home; he’s trying his best, but it’s new to him. He grieves mightily, and to assuage some of his pain, he made a space in the house where he can’t see her traces and tracks all the time. Her shampoos and crème rinses and lotions disappeared from the shower. Her magazines: recycled. Her bottles and bottles of medicines: gone. He moved her clothes from their bedroom to the guest bedroom.

That first night back, I couldn’t fall asleep in the echo. In the guest room I ranged like a dog, searching for her scent, whiffling desperately in the closet where her clothes hang. I felt that if I looked hard enough, I could track her, find her and bring her home. But all I found was the lingering faint scent on her clothes, and like some kind of crazed junkie, I tried to huff mom.

Insomnia drove me outside; when the panic of grief squeezes my innards, being outside under the sky calms me. The night was warm; the streets shone from recent rain, and mist halos webbed together streetlights under arching elm branches. In the distance I could hear a train—sound carries when the air is damp—and the white noise of the far away freeway.

I inhaled, slowly settling the wet, heavy vapor in the back of my throat, and I smelled…something. Not her. But yes, her.

Like sound, scent carries on damp air, makes it easier to sort the threads of odor that skein and yarn in the world. I smelled these things: the charcoal blue bass of wet pavement, the maroon sigh of wet earth, the green trace of snails in wet grass, the faint pale greenish-yellow tang of cats, a paisley crumple of crushed geranium leaves, and over the top of it all, the cream-colored layer of February flowers blooming. It didn’t smell exactly like her, but there was enough there that was like her, that smell of being, of quiet, of stillness and the grace she brought to our lives.

I’m not going to lie and say that I stopped crying in the dark. I’m not going to make this a tidy blog post with a neat transformation at the end. Because grief isn’t like that. At least not for me. But I will say that, just for a few moments—the span of time it takes for a bird to sing itself back to sleep in its nest—I was able to find some kind of comfort in the warp and weft of odors woven into this place where I grew up, a tapestry that smelled, ever so briefly, like home.

Enduring loss: Love letters to my mom

tree in snow
Lone trees bracing against the snow

There are days when my grief is too big for the house to contain.  So I rush outside before grief expands, and I try to cast it away into the dome of the sky.

Last Monday was one of those days, when I felt like the house was strangling me. I raced to get outside. We’d had a storm, and I stepped into fresh snow and a world that had gone all white. Ten inches of wet snow smoothed the landscape, cloaked the trees, and softened hard edges. The mountains were invisible; fog silvered the middle distance.

Snow fell and I reveled in the fast, fat white flakes. I’m a Bay Area girl, new to living in snow; I still think it’s magic. Once outside, I crunched and scrunched down the road and across paths and lawns ; I kicked white gouts of powder in front of me, made funny footprints, hurled snowballs that flew apart into sprays of crystals. I laughed. And then I started to cry.

One of the curious things about grief is how  closely joy and sadness are entwined. Tears often follow moments of happiness, as if joy opens a valve to a spillway and grief gouts out, rolling in sticky tears over my face.

Water through snow, with green
Water through snow, with green. Grief flows like water, surging against ice and earth.

I wandered for hours in the storm, snapped pictures while tears soaked my face (it’s a wonder they didn’t freeze!). Sometimes I bawled my head off in the silent isolation of the storm. And at some point during my long hike, I thought, these pictures will be love letter to my mom.

The images in this post are things I want to share with her, pictures that would make her laugh, or say “oh my.”  I don’t know if the dead can see the internet, but Momma, if any part of you still drifts in the ether and can see into cyberspace, these are for you.

Trees in snow
A portal of red dead trees looks out over a green pond

A cheery snowman made me laugh through my tears.

Deer statue
Garden ornament in the snow looks into the storm.

Water in spillway
Water at the spillway, waiting to rush into Angels Creek.


red bird house
My mother’s favorite color was red. She would have loved this bird house, bright scarlet against green and white.




Winter storm and crying in the snow

Bench in snow
Snow ghosts looking over the valley filled with white

1:50 am Saturday morning

The storm woke me.

Well, really, anxiety woke me. My nerves shrieked like a bad actor chewing the scenery while an orchestra of winds howled around the house. With it’s ever-present sub-text of grief, my brain wouldn’t stop the reel-to-reel predictions of doom, of tall trees crashing through the roof, of branches flying through windows, of chaos and destruction.

I always worry about heavy wind in the Sierra. Trees surround our house. Big trees. Trees weakened by drought, anchored into the earth with withered roots. And the earth, sodden by days of rain and ten inches of melting snow, tends to give way easily; picture trying to stand a spoon in a bowl of pudding.

This is the second series of storms that started Friday evening, when the first storm dumped snow on us and wrapped the world in white in less than an hour. I barely made it to the gate of the development where I live; once through, my car—a flat-lander car sans chains or 4-wheel drive—wouldn’t climb the hill. Instead, I parked the car and walked the last mile to my house, through fat wet flakes that obliterated every step in minutes.

For whole minutes at a time, while I slithered up the slushy highway, while I slid the car to the side of the road, while I broke snow through the front yards of neighbors, while I marveled at the darkly luminous night, I didn’t think about my mom. Small mercies.

Cedars in snow
Cedars weighted with snow. I mourn while the trees expect to shed the heaviness when the weather warms.

Voices in the snow

Next morning, when the light rose slowly, a heavy fog curtained trees that were lumpy with snow, and more snow—flakes now like soft cotton squares—drifted down.

All day Saturday, between bouts shoveling and extricating my car from the side of the road*, I walked miles through the snow, enjoying the crunch under my feet, the freshness of the air, and the smell of snow that is a non-smell, a fresh scent, blue and sharp and nothingness. I thought perhaps I could exhaust myself so that I would sleep through the night.

Wet black oak branches curled and scribbled against the white landscape, scrawling hieroglyphics that I tried to read. A grove of horse chestnuts looked like they were dancing a slow circle-dance. Cedars drooped under the weight of the snow, and ponderosas stood like snowy sentinels. It was like a National Geographic photo. Reflexively I thought, I’ll call mom, or send her some pictures of this. She loves to watch the weather so. I though of her at home, sitting on the couch reading the charts and diagrams in the newspaper every day, imagining the atmospheric conditions that affect her kids and grandkids in their far-flung homes.

And just as reflexively I thought, I can’t call her. She’s not there. The phone would ring and the answering machine would pick-up, or my father. And he will no longer say, “Let me get your mom. She’s right here.” Although my dad and I talk twice a day now, holding each other up as we wade through our grief, the absence of those words, “you wanna talk to your mom?”  makes me ache.

I began to cry as I walked down the deserted street. I called out, “Hello mom,” and the memory of her voice reverberated.

“Hey, sugar,” I imagined her saying.

“Momma, where are you?” I said out loud, and her voice in my head said, “I’m here.”

“I can’t find you,” I said. “Come home. Come back. I miss you.”

And I remembered that she can’t come back. Her body is ash now; it fills a box hidden in the closet in one of the bedrooms; we can’t stand to look at it. Her voice in my head faded, drowned perhaps by my sobs, ugly in the snowy stillness. I cried noisily until I passed a man in a blue track suit shoveling snow at the bottom of his driveway. He looked at me, leaning on his shovel and scowling with discomfort.  I choked back my tears; it’s a small community and perhaps I will soon get a reputation as a crazy lady.

Chestnut trees
Horse chestnuts circle dance on a hill.

Dramatic break? Not so much.

By midnight on Saturday, strong winds blew in, and the keening as they knifed by the house woke me. In a bad fantasy movie this would be the dramatic break: overwhelmed by grief, I run out into the storm, nightgown plastered fetchingly to my body as I wander aimlessly but with great emotion through the lashing winds. Trees rock and roll, then crash down, barely missing me, and I sob in the mounds of greenery until a strange old woman finds me, leads me to her little house and feeds me hot drinks so bitter they sting my tongue but bring sleep until morning sun breaks through mullioned windows. There’s a denouement. I’m still sad, but healed, and able to walk through honey gold sunshine into a brand new life.

Feh. My life is boring. There aren’t any mysterious, magical old women living in cottages near by; just retirees and working moms. I’m too much of a wimp and too old to be an ingenue scampering helter-skelter into a storm. Instead, I took an anti-anxiety pill and sat in the little room we call the library, writing this post until the medication smoothed the jagged edges of my nerves and grief. They are small white lozenges the doctor prescribed when I told her that I suffered severe panic attacks after my mother died; I don’t like taking them, but the doctor explained they are medicine, so I take as directed when the anxiety shouts too loud. Outside the storm still rages, but an hour after taking a pill I don’t care as much. My nerves have settled down, writing helps quiet my mind, and eventually, around 4 a.m., I’m able to sleep, despite the winds rocking the cedars and pines and shrieking around the house.

*I want to give a big shout out to my neighbors, G. and his son, K., who helped me shovel snow and free my car. You know who you are! Your kindness touched me deeply. Small gifts like that are amazingly helpful to soften grief. Thank you.



A new path for life, a new blog focus on grief

snow in grief
Snow of grief

For some time I’ve been meaning to change the direction of Mockingbirds at Midnight, but was unsure where I’d take the blog. Then my life changed. It’s a weird thing about life; sometimes pathways appear when you least expect them. Sometimes you are dragged onto a cold, hard trail kicking and screaming NONONO!

On the last day of 2016, my mother—my security, my rock, my best friend, my biggest fan, my confidant, my conscience, my guide, my momma—left this world. Since then I’ve been wandering a dark landscape, lost amid sucking holes of anxiety and panic, stumbling through bogs made of tears, and falling into deep swally holes of grief. As I wandered, I did find one path that seemed to be semi-solid ground, and that is the path of writing and sharing this first year of loss on this blog. I hope it will help me; I hope, if you are grieving, it might give you some comfort too.

Over the next month, I’m going to be migrating my art related content to my website, MargaretSloan.com. That’s where you’ll find articles on how to make a light box, how to paint teeth, and how to pack art materials for a car trip. Plus other assorted articles and blogs about art, folklore, and the world as seen by an artist. I’ll still be working on happier things, but I won’t be doing that here. Head on over to MargaretSloan.com and explore my website as I develop it, sign-up for my newsletter, or follow my blog to keep up-to-date on more upbeat topics.

But Mockingbirds at Midnight, for the next year, will be about grief. About how it feels to be left behind. About how it feels to say I’ll never see my loved one again. About all the rituals, stories, and myths surrounding death, because that’s what I need to share with the world right now. And it will be about how we might heal, if that’s even possible, after great loss.

And it will be about my mother, as much as possible (I do want to protect the privacy of my family), and my gigantic love for the amazing woman she was and continues to be in my heart.

I understand if you don’t want to read this kind of stuff. It’s not for everyone. But if you think you  might find comfort in these words, I hope you’ll stick around.