Why am I crying all the time?

Grief has come over me in heavy, relentless waves.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 1, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have grief. I have grief over the stupidest, dumbest things. I have petty grief. I carry it around with me, and every so often it spills over and I can't seem to stop myself from crying. Literally. A full day of crying every couple of months. It is ruining my really good life.

I am in my late 40s, a divorced woman with a teenage daughter. She is finally doing great. I have, after 10 years of working my butt off, got myself into a situation where work is OK and I have time to write (what I do for fun). I don't quite have enough money, but it's not dire. I have been in many more terrible situations in my life, like when I ended my marriage to my addicted husband, like when I didn't have any skills and had to work as a waitress, like when I didn't have a car and any health insurance, like when my young daughter seemed really unhappy and anxious and I didn't know how to help her. I have everything settled (for now). I have a job that's good and a daughter who's happy, I live in a decent neighborhood, I even have a boyfriend whom I see every couple of weeks in another city.

So what is wrong with me? The grief I carry with me seems so deep and self-pitying that I can barely stand myself. I'm not clinically depressed. I function fine, I sleep fine, I mother fine. But I cry. I cry because I will never have another child. I really love being a mother and I can see my daughter becoming more and more independent; she doesn't need me as much anymore. I will never have another child. I won't ever be able to have a baby and watch her go through all those great explorations, like eating pistachios and saying no for the first time. I won't be able to give my daughter a brother or sister, so she'll never have that. Ever. I cry because I can't afford private school for my child, and I don't even believe in private school, but my brother can afford private school for his kids, so I cry. I cry because my long-married friends finally seem content in their marriages, and the history they share with their husbands seems incredibly sustaining, and they are able to share this with each other. And I'll never have that. I'll never have this intact thing with the father of my child that I can count on. I might not ever be married again, or even live with a man again, therefore I cry. I cry because my house is messy and my furniture is old and I have too many books and not enough bookcases and I can't afford to buy my daughter a laptop computer.

I know I am an idiot. I know that. I have so much. Health and a beautiful child and a few friends and a decent job -- and I don't have any money in the stock market to lose. I coped just fine after my marriage ended. I was sad, but I buckled down and tried to make it work on my own. But tonight, when my daughter's at dance and I could be singing loudly to pop radio or reading a good book or taking a walk, I'm crying. Why all this self-pitying now? What's wrong with me? I'm filled with regret and grief. Everything is finally OK. Why can't I just be happy? Why?

Wallowing in It

Dear Wallowing,

I am going to write back to you in an unguarded, meandering way -- even more unguarded and meandering than usual. While from a technical standpoint the unguarded meandering style lacks the punch and sizzle of more carefully wrought prose, I think it is publicly useful for a writer to be able to do this from time to time; so I will offer you a meandering and unguarded glimpse of my own grief.

I appreciate your writing about grief, as I have been having periods of intense grief lately, and it's one of those things that we don't write about very often in the mainstream press, and I suspect it is often viewed as a symptom of some pathology, as it may be in some cases, but I am a very high-functioning person, successful and happy, happily married, creative, law-abiding, and twice this week I have plunged into a deep and searing grief that causes me to ask what is going on. In conversation about this with a friend, leaning against my truck (why is it that the best conversations between men occur when we are both leaning against the truck? Is that why I still have the truck -- so we can lean against the fenders of the truck bed and talk?) and I said to him -- and this is only because I trust him not to ridicule me for saying such things -- I said that part of the grief I feel seems like grief for the world, like a grief for all the losses in the world, all the sadness and death, all the dead soldiers and motherless children, all the wanderers and prisoners and the tortured and possessed, the outcast and low-born and blind, the misunderstood, the ones who die in silence in unmarked graves and are searched for eternally by relatives, the ones who die suddenly when not ready, who have not yet had a last meal, who have no time to prepare.

Instances of this grief: As I read a simple little story to a group of sympathetic listeners recently, it became nearly impossible to continue because I felt so much grief when reading it. I am not sure whether the story contained this grief, or whether I brought this grief to the story, or used the story as a stage for this grief. I do not know. Another recent instance: As I recounted some early childhood experiences to a trusted intimate recently, I was again overcome by grief. What is this grief? Where does it come from? It seems to be always from the same place, as though grief were a spring flowing backward, taking everything into it, a hole in the forest where everything is going, where everything that is gone can be remembered: The vanishing point, the place where everything that is gone was last seen. The point of departure, the swirling drain of creation.

It seems there is a place down which everything goes. This seems to be the place of grief. And it is not regret. It is not shame. It is purer than that. It is not personal.

At least that is what I have been feeling. So I wanted to share that in the hope that you may at least give this thing some shape. I do wonder, intellectually, what this phenomenon is, this sudden grieving.

(Who has died recently? My dear Aunt Lotte, off a cliff in Austria; my dear David Foster Wallace, a suicide by hanging; my own parents still alive but tragically lost to me; my father-in-law, now ashes over Lower Saxony; so many others who have died and continue to die.)

In the quest for some understanding of it, here is a link and a paragraph that you may find interesting:

"For [writer Darian] Leader, the nub of the problem is mourning, and the work of mourning, that follows all losses in life, be that from death, the end of relationships, or life's disillusionments. He suggests that the reason depression is on the rise, apart from the dark promotion of the 'condition' by the drug companies, is because as a society we are becoming so bad at mourning. It doesn't fit with our image of what it is to be [a] human being -- autonomous, transparent to science, productive to the economy, and the like. Rising levels of depression should not be responded to by yet more pills but by listening to that depression: it's perhaps a kind of protest against the conditions -- emotional and spiritual, not material -- people are being forced to live in."

I am also caused to think about depression because of my grieving for the suicide, by hanging, of David Foster Wallace, and the fact that he was depressed, and that he had been taken off his medication because of the side effects, and that he had been given electroconvulsive shock therapy, and that he had been unable to teach or write, and that he was very funny and very brilliant and that all these things are connected -- that his brilliance and his humor allowed him to seal off and delay grieving whatever secret and well-disguised grief must have hounded him so. We do not know how to mourn; we do it badly if at all; we mostly do not mourn; we are caldrons of grief dangerously dense, inert and cold as stone, ready to irradiate us if its container should crack.

I say these things as a poet, not as a practical man. As a practical man I curse the grief that comes over me as I hammer and saw. I curse the grief that comes over me as I drive, forcing me to the side, to sit in the forest in my car and listen to the ping of the engine as it cools amid the sobs that come from someplace I cannot name and have not visited in recent memory. This has nothing to do with how competent we are. It comes from beyond the hammer and the truck and the paycheck.

So thank you for writing about grief, and for giving me the opportunity to write about grief, and let me say, too, that as I sit here now I am not cracking up or giving in to it, that I am floating along now, regarding the great, swift emptying out of things into the swirling drain of creation with something like a cold eye, a cold, distant, curious eye, protected for the moment from its pull.

I hope you can be protected from its pull, too, from time to time. But that is not a state to long for all the time. We must grieve a great deal -- more than we do now -- and mourn a great deal -- more than we do now -- and learn to do it well, and learn to welcome it. If we do not, then, as I say, this grief that we carry in great holding tanks like plutonium under Utah, our briny sands protecting it, our sandstone layers protecting it, sealing it off, our rehearsing of silence still a great burden on us, this grief under pressure will ignite and the whole world will go up, shocked, contaminated, radioactive with our grief.

I do not know any of these things. I only suspect them in a radically subjective way. I am my own laboratory of these things. I do suspect that deep mourning is helping me out of my depression; I suspect that my depression follows on the introjection of anger, and that the anger comes from disappointment, behind which is grief, and that ultimately deep mourning may be the way out of it. So these fits of grief feel good in that way; they feel like connection to the world. I grieve for the world. And so I wonder if the depression isn't sometimes a holding off of grief, for fear perhaps that the grief would swallow us whole, as it seems to when we are in it. And there is that sense, also, is there not, of performance in the midst of grief, that we are also sending it out on its way when we experience it most acutely, performing it, expiating it, crying it out? We are crying it out in a way that we certainly cannot when we are in the depths of depression and unable to cry anything out.

They feel so close, these two things, so close.

What I most dislike about depression is how it leads to suicide. Depression seems like something we can crawl out of; grief seems like a door onto the world. Suicide shuts the door.

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