"I’m not crying ... My eyes are just a little sweaty today"
December 10, 2007 10:48 AM   Subscribe

How do you not get emotional when something drastically bad happens to your family?

At the risk of being called a "girly-man" or being told to "grow a pair" I'm going to go ahead and ask this question. I know that everyone here is nicer than that.How do you not get emotional when something drastically bad happens to your family?

In an effort to save face, here is a little back story. This weekend my brother-in-law was abruptly diagnosed with a brain tumor on his brain stem. This came as a big shock to the family. He's in his early 30's. His symptoms started only Wednesday with a slight double-vision, followed by a migraine-like-headache on Saturday/Sunday. While we're not as close as my real brothers, we are business partners, occasionally golf together and attend ball games. I'm not the kind of person that cries easily, haven’t cried since my childhood. I didn’t tear up on my wedding day or when my daughter was born. The closest I've come to crying was my eye’s moistening up at my grandfather’s funeral ... and now on Sunday. He has 2 young boys that are getting confused on why everyone is crying because "daddy only has a headache". I'm their only uncle that’s around them everyday, the other ones don’t come around but a few times a year. They need someone strong to lead them through all of this; their mother's a wreck (as to be expected).

That’s the story, on to the question.

What do you do when you feel your eye's getting wet and your voice starting to break, but don’t want it to go any further? Before anyone says that crying is a natural part of the healing process realize I know this and will come to terms with it on my own time, when everything is done. I've found that doing lengthy mathematics in my head works ok when I'm the observer (funerals, hospital waiting rooms, etc). But when I'm explaining to my nephews why daddy's going to be in the hospital for a long time, it’s quite difficult to add 78,945,789 and 34,652,356.

What techniques do you use? What works well? Give me some advice.
posted by enobeet to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The only thing I've found that helps when dealing with little kids + tragedy is a team. When my husband and I had to explain why we were putting our daughter's cat down, I talked until I couldn't go on, and he picked up from there.

However, I also think it's okay for you to show this kind of emotion to the boys- as long as you're not so over the top that you make yourself unavailable to them. Sometimes kids think they're supposed to do exactly what the adults around them do when something confusing and overwhelming happens. If Uncle enobeet can cry about it, it reassures them that it's okay to feel bad and cry about it, too.
posted by headspace at 10:51 AM on December 10, 2007

Looking up seems to help for me - also, deep, regular breathing.

You might also want to explain to the boys that sometimes somebody having to be in the hospital for a while is sad, and that's why you seem sad. They're gonna be able to tell, no matter what, and giving them some context will make it less of a big deal if you get all sniffly.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:51 AM on December 10, 2007

Cause yourself another sort of pain as a distraction. Dig your fingernails into the palm of your hand, bite your lip, or bite the inside of your cheek.
posted by amro at 10:52 AM on December 10, 2007

For me, getting the crying out of the way is sometimes the only thing that helps. I was dealing with a very stressful situation in August, during which it fell to me to hold things together and get a lot of necessary things done while under a lot of emotional strain, and there were times when I'd be working really hard to keep from breaking down, and the thing that helped was just to admit that I needed to sit down and cry for a few minutes. Then I could move on. I have a 6 year old and a 3 year old, and I had to do this once while in the car with them. I told them, "I'm going to be OK, I'm just feeling sad and I'm going to pull over and cry for a couple of minutes, and then I'll feel better and we can keep going." They were able to accept that pretty well when I was just honest with them about what was going on for me.
posted by not that girl at 11:01 AM on December 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

What do you do when you feel your eye's getting wet and your voice starting to break, but don’t want it to go any further?

I am really sorry for your brother-in-law and his kids. This must be so difficult.

I cry easily but I have been getting a lot better at controlling it. Usually what works for me is to either excuse myself and cry in the bathroom or my car (anywhere private) for five minutes. I get it all out and cry and then I am ready to face whatever is bothering me. Another tactic I use is to tell myself that while I can't cry at this very moment, I can cry when I get home (or to my car, wherever). I let myself cry but just not at a particular moment in time.

Deep breaths always help and it also sometimes helps to concentrate on mundane things around me, like "The wall is blue" and "My shoes are brown."
posted by sutel at 11:03 AM on December 10, 2007

I don't know anything about explaining difficult situations to children. However, I do know a thing or two about preventing tears. I previously responded to a similar question, but I can't find it, so I'll paraphrase here:

1. Deep breaths
2. Raising and lowering your eyebrows (I don't know why this works, I'm guessing it blocks the tear ducts)
3. If I'm seated at a table, pinching my inner thigh
4. Not looking into anyone's eyes
5. Focusing on something else in the room
6. Making anagrams in my head of words I see in the room, reading things backwards, etc.

Also, a regular meditation practice will teach you how to quickly put yourself in a detached headspace.
posted by desjardins at 11:04 AM on December 10, 2007

Well, the way it works best is to learn to experience the feelings without acting out. You can't run or hide from your emotional system, which has been in place for millions of years of evolution.

Learn how to accept the feelings by being fully aware of them but just try to sit with it without reacting.

If you do react, don't beat yourself up about it.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2007

One thing is to not let what's happening blindside you. If you block out your feelings about something and ignore them, big unavoidable confrontations with the issue will force you to deal with those feelings whether you want to or not. Try to think through what's going on and get a handle on the situation, or better yet, talk to someone about it. I'm sure just writing your question to AskMeFi helped, because I'm guessing that you haven't talked to many people about it yet.

And I know you said you don't want to hear it, but getting emotional about something is not the end of the world. You're not a robot, and just because something like this affects you emotionally doesn't mean you can't be strong for your family to help them through it.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2007

Try and have a very clear idea of what you're going to say, in advance. When you're having this hard talk with the kids, focus on "delivering your lines". Make it about getting the words said, and try and distance yourself a little from the significance of what you're saying. Practicing it like a speech might help you get a sensitive delivery going, and it may help you get a little emotion out before you have your audience.
posted by chudmonkey at 11:05 AM on December 10, 2007

I feel strongly that it's inappropriate to hide your emotions, because that teaches the boys that having those emotions is emasculating. It's not. It's human, and not having those emotions makes for a very unsympathetic person. Feelings are not the exclusive provenance of women. Look at how you began your post -- you made two statements about how having or showing your feelings translates into not being a man. What kind of man has no feelings about something as tragic as a life cut short with so little warning? You might not be the kind of person who tears up easily, but don't be the kind of person who pretends, when it does happen, that there's something wrong with that. There isn't, and teaching your nephews that there is something can make it much harder for them to cope with their father's death. Give them permission, through your actions, to cry, to feel, to be angry, to be confused. Don't teach them that doing math is the appropriate response to the death of a parent. It could seriously hinder their ability to grieve. You have a unique opportunity here to be an important role model; don't blow it by worrying that someone is going to think you're a eunuch.

Yes, this will alarm your nephews. But it will be even more alarming to them if their father dies and they had no idea this was coming ... if they thought it was just a headache because everyone around them acted as if it were nothing. They deserve the warning that your sadness can provide for them. They might also think that you didn't care about their father, and thus aren't a good person to go to for support, if you don't seem bothered by his death. Be bothered. It's the clearest sign that you're a good person to understand why they are bothered.

I heard a professional recording of Anne Frank's Diary many years ago, read by (I think) Meryl Streep. As she got to the end, to the part where the narration describes what happens to Anne and her family, she got choked up and couldn't go on. This was a professional recording, so they could easily have just edited out her emotion and done a re-take after she'd done some complex math. But they left it in, and even included the voice of the director saying, "That's okay, take your time." It was so powerful. Her recognition of the immensity and the personality of the tragedy were riveting. It would have been no less riveting had it been a man reading the story. Emotions are magical. Let yours shine through. They make you a better man, a better brother-in-law, a better uncle.
posted by Capri at 11:11 AM on December 10, 2007 [39 favorites]

What do you do when you feel your eye's getting wet and your voice starting to break, but don’t want it to go any further?

Carry a glass of water with you and take a small drink anytime you feel you're getting close to cracking. Your body will focus on that practical action and tune down the internal waterworks.

I swear to you this works. I cry very, very easily - it's my default physical response to every strong emotion. My dad taught me this trick and it has worked in every context from a high stress business meeting to giving a toast at a wedding. It's easy and unobstrusive too, which is all the better. But I do agree with other posters that if you do lose it, and you react or cry in front of your nephews, it is more than okay. If you are physically demonstrative family, this is the perfect time for a hug.

I'm very sorry to hear about your brother-in-law, I wish all the best to your family during this time.
posted by nelleish at 11:15 AM on December 10, 2007

If you're just asking about how to stop the tears, physically, try taking frequent sips of water (or whatever) while talking. For some reason it's very difficult (impossible?) to swallow and cry at the same time.

Or, if you just don't want to cry at a specific time (i.e. while taking to your nephews), maybe you can have an all-out full-blown cry by yourself right before talking to them. I'm always a lot calmer right after a good cry and less likely to start crying again right then.
posted by INTPLibrarian at 11:19 AM on December 10, 2007

In the crazy stressful situations where I feel that I am going to crack or start to cry or such, the best way for me to be able to start to deal with it is to get through it. Tell the stressful thing to someone. Practice on your spouse, a friend, someone who you trust to just not mind if you break down crying in the middle of it and will wait it through with you.

It always seems easier once I've gotten through it once.
posted by that girl at 11:21 AM on December 10, 2007

Similar questions to this have been asked before, mostly about keeping other strong emotions under control, but they may help: I find whenever I choke up (I get a weird 'lockjaw' feeling when I get het up about something) a good clearing of the throat and looking up for a second does a double duty of controlling strong emotion while making it clear to the observer that you are controlling a strong emotion (useful when someone is being objectionable).
posted by Happy Dave at 11:23 AM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Years of practice.
posted by Skorgu at 11:25 AM on December 10, 2007

I am very sorry to hear about your brother-in-law and I think it's admirable that you are so invested in your nephews during this difficult time.

The number one trick I have found to holding back tears is to press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, very hard. I used to offer this suggestions to brides, of all people, back in my wedding-planner days.

Wishing you and your family peace and strength...
posted by justonegirl at 11:39 AM on December 10, 2007

My mother got cancer and died when I was a kid. No one around me cried at any point. When I was told my mother was dead, all the adults around me were completely dry-eyed and stiff. I was told that if I needed to cry I could go to my room. I was 12. Please don't do anything even remotely resembling this. Cry so your nephews (1) know that someone cares and (2) know that crying is normal and not something shameful.
posted by PatoPata at 11:44 AM on December 10, 2007 [6 favorites]

Seconding justonegirl's approach with the tongue on the roof of the mouth. That's what I did on my wedding day.

Oh, and nice FoTC reference in your question.
posted by gaspode at 11:48 AM on December 10, 2007

seconding PatoPata.

Please cry.
posted by odi.et.amo at 12:05 PM on December 10, 2007

Capri said what I was thinking, only much much better.

Please show your nephews that real men aren't afraid to cry. Don't just pass on the same lessons you were taught.
posted by ottereroticist at 12:21 PM on December 10, 2007

First, realize that emotions and behaviour are two different things. Your emotions are involuntary reactions that are not in your control. Sometimes people can change their emotional response (e.g. get over a phobia) over a long period of time with a lot of work, but there's nothing you're going to do to change overnight how you respond emotionally to the idea of your brother being so ill.

However, you can probably change what you do to demonstrate emotion. That's what the suggestions in this thread are mostly about.

I would also say that, even if you don't want to cry in front of anyone else, it is important that you do allow yourself to cry in front of your nephews. I'm pretty sure you're not going to hide from them how upset you are in any case and trying to suppress the tears will communicate to them that what they are feeling is wrong.
posted by winston at 12:27 PM on December 10, 2007

Seconding those who say to get your crying out of the way in private, ahead of time. Even induce it by focusing on those emotions when you have moments to yourself. If you are trying to hide any trace of it, icing the area around your eyes will reduce the resulting puffiness and redness, and there is Visine for the bloodshot eyes.

Getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding taxing your system will also shore up your mental defenses as it were.
posted by Manjusri at 12:51 PM on December 10, 2007

i'm a woman, but here's my $0.02: if you're in a place where you can say "i'm getting a little emotional, hang on" if you do start heading tear-wards when talking to the kids, that might help - both in giving you some breathing space to get yourself back together and to give them a role model for "yeah, men get upset and then compose themselves" (rather than "men wail like banshees" or "men don't cry").

my own father died recently, and my goal for his funeral mass was to keep my shit together long enough to do the reading that was my role in the mass. and i did manage it, but sometimes it was a lot of "oh, look, a light fixture" and deep breathing and telling myself over and over that i only had to keep it together for another half hour.

best wishes dealing with all of this and helping your (exteded) family deal.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:53 PM on December 10, 2007

First off, I agree with Capri (above). And I'm so sorry about this news, and you find yourself in the singular position of having to be that "someone strong".

Having said all that, when my mother was dying two months ago I found that when I wanted to stay controlled, it helped to focus on the things that had to be done. There were arrangements that had to be made; I would make them. We still got hungry; I would figure out what and where we would eat. People had to be contacted; I would make a list and contact them. And so on, using the practical as a shield against all the things I could not bear, yet also budgeting time for the tears and sadness. I told myself that Mom would want things this way. Perhaps you can use this technique, too, to ward off the tears until the time when you're ready to have them.

Now it's been a few months, and things creep on me when I don't expect it. I saw Elton John singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" on tv Friday evening, and that made me teary eyed. There are times when you truly do need to let it happen. It's possible that you may be in for a really, really hard time, and the tears, although not welcome, may be your friend at some point.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:24 PM on December 10, 2007

well, you know the answer: you don't. just because you haven't cried before doesn't mean you can't cry now. (i'm sorry if that sounds cheesy.)

and the reason i say this isn't for your wellbeing or your emotional health or anything like that. it's for those kids. it doesn't do them any good for everyone to pretend like everything's all right. and it doesn't do them any good to pretend like this is going to be easy. they know (believe me, they know) it is neither okay or easy. what you need to show them is a) honesty and b) integrity. that means owning up to them that this is hard, and that you're going to stick it out with them anyway. even if they see you cry.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:38 PM on December 10, 2007

Fidget. If you look, you'll notice the many unconscious habits that people have... cracking knuckles, rolling fingers, popping pimples, plucking hairs out of their head, etc. Nobody starts doing any of those odious personal habits because they're fun, they start doing them because they need to do "something else" to hold stuff in. For a perfect illustration of this in action, attend a meeting where nobody dares speak against a higher-up making insane demands, and watch how everyone develops increasing numbers of physical tics the longer it goes.

The problem with this method of (not) dealing is that the more you hold in, the more of these habits you pick up to compensate, and before you know it you can't stand still anymore. Worse, if you don't find a way to actually burn off the emotions in private moments later, you can rapidly turn into a walking powder keg of emotion (and explode on someone who really doesn't deserve it).

As such, I can't really recommend the lifestyle... but you asked.
posted by Pufferish at 1:40 PM on December 10, 2007

What techniques do you use? What works well?

Years spent at the hands of extremely unemotional parents (my father never cries, even at his mother's funeral) taught me a few tricks, but the one I found most effective was to not feel the tear-causing emotion in the first place. It takes practice, but it is possible to give yourself "a heart of stone", where you literally don't feel an emotion. I had about 20 years experience of doing this, though, and it's not a skill you can learn overnight. Meditation, "stuffing" the emotion down, putting it in a box, locking it away, etc, all help.

That said, I'm going to agree with the posters who say "cry". For your nephews' sake, be honest. They're just going to copy their role models, which means you, and it's going to really affect them later on in life if they have to hold this grief in and put on a "brave face". Believe me, I speak from experience. Don't pressure them into behaving a certain way, which you will, if you pressure yourself into behaving a certain way.

I know it might be embarrassing and uncomfortable for you to cry at all, especially in front of 2 young children, but do it for their sake. You mention that you're a role model to them - let them express their emotions. They're going to be really really upset. Please don't put them in a situation where they have to wrestle these emotions down and cover them up. That'll just make things 10 times worse for them. Not only do they have emotions that are scary and confusing, but they also have to not feel them, because they don't want to upset the adults.

If you want to do these kids a favour, if you want them to grow up into well adjusted adults, if you want them to be open with themselves, then be the one person in their lives that they can go to and cry all over, without fear of reprisal. How do you show them that you approve of their tears? By crying yourself. Anything else is half measures.

I'm extremely biased on this subject, I know. And I've probably spoken out of turn. But I've been in these kids world, and it's not a fun place.
posted by Solomon at 1:55 PM on December 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a place just under my left rib where I push shit down into. I just noticed it hurting one day and took note from that point on, so I don't know how (or if) you could (or should) do that?

But I think anytime you're dealing with kids it becomes about them. For example if a mum is seriously injured and her child is there and becoming extremely alarmed it's not unusual for her to be reasuring. She might have tears streaming down her face but she'll say "It's ok baby, I'm alright. Just go inside and call somebody ok?" And she'll be smiling. The moment the kid leaves it is not so easy to stay calm...!

Their need will be more important than yours. They need to know it's bad but that everything will be ok.
It'll be ok.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 2:10 PM on December 10, 2007

Personally, I pretend to sneeze once or twice. Perhaps not so convincing, but it gives me a second or two to clear my mind.

That or trying to meditate-- just empty your mind as much as you can. Try not to think of anything but the present, concentrate on your breathing and what you are saying.

And don't beat yourself up if you have a lapse or two. You should give yourself credit for thinking of the kids before yourself. A lot of people make the drama about them. I admire you for even trying to be strong.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 2:41 PM on December 10, 2007

Man, I wish I could edit or delete my previous post. I agree with Capri, Solomon, et al - don't hide your emotions in front of these kids.
posted by desjardins at 3:24 PM on December 10, 2007

You sound so down on yourself for what is a perfectly understandable emotion. Even though I know emotions are finite, it helps me to move through them more quickly when I don't hold anything in. It's not a sign of weakness, but of surrender to what is. And in my experience, emotions left unconfronted turn into other emotions, or family problems, or physical stress.

Capri: I believe you're referring to the Julie Harris recording of The Diary of Anne Frank, and your response actually triggered a powerful memory in me. I so distinctly remember hearing the break in her voice and having the SHIT scared out of me -- it jarred me right out of that world of 1940s Holland and into the real tragedy and horror of the event. Thanks for the reminder, and your beautiful response.
posted by mynameisluka at 3:45 PM on December 10, 2007

First of all, Capri makes some insanely good points.

Second of all, it's times like these when I really miss Mr. Rogers. I'm not kidding. Ask yourself: What would Mr. Rogers do?

Answer: He would say, very gently, and with tons of compassion that "It's okay to be sad". I believe he even did a whole show on just this topic.

Seriously. Grieving is a natural part of life, although modern society has some seriously fucked-up gender-oriented ways of handling it, as you alluded to in your post. Learning how to deal constructively with these strong emotions like grief, anger, fear, stress, etcetera is part of being a well-rounded, sane human being.

It's okay to be sad. Tell yourself this. Tell your nephews and your sister and all the rest of the family this. Be honest with yourself, and honest with them. Learn how to face your tears/pain/grief, go through them head-on, and come out the other side clearer minded and able to continue on.

And yes, to answer the actual question: deep breaths. You will all get through this. My thoughts are with you.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:19 PM on December 10, 2007

Capri's post is beautiful, but I also want to add, make sure you have as much information as possible, and that you do try to take the long view. I don't know the details in your situation, but brain tumors can be treatable, and I think there is a difference between showing emotions based on fear and those based on loss, especially when you're dealing with children.
posted by mdn at 4:26 PM on December 10, 2007

I'd like to add on to what lonefrontranger said about Mr. Rogers. Besides letting us know that our emotions are OK, Mr. Rogers also was really big on letting kids know what to expect ("When you go to the dentist, there will be a big chair for you to sit in, and the dentist will ask you to open your mouth," etc.).

If you're worried that the sight of you breaking down mid-sentence and crying will add to your nephews' fear and confusion, you can innoculate them a little bit just by saying at the outset, "I need to talk to you about something that makes me feel sad. I might need to cry while I talk." Then you can either cry or not cry, but if you do, they won't be taken aback (at least not as badly) by the unfamiliar experience.
posted by Orinda at 5:01 PM on December 10, 2007

It seems to me that crying usually happens in a situation where a predicament becomes too contextualized, or the view becomes so narrow that only the particular situation at hand is what the entire world is about.

Stay big picture. The ocean will still wash up on the shore, the earth will still go around the sun, this isn't a new event. Begin trying to find possible solutions to the future impacts. Getting trapped in a flood is generally sad, but not when you've got a houseboat. Study brain stem tumors a little, develop a spatial-awareness visual image of where it is and a frank acceptance that it's happening. Prepare yourself to comprehend that you have one such affliction and what things you'd get squared away if you were in his position, etc.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 11:41 AM on December 11, 2007

Speaking from very recent personal experience...In the past three months, I've lost my dad and two of our cats. All of those were pretty taxing, emotionally. With my dad, I had to be there to play a supportive role to my mom and be strong for her and my younger sister. I found myself not feeling the urge to cry around her much at all, mostly because I had to focus on keeping it together and be an advocate for my dad to the hospital staff. It wasn't that I was trying not to cry, so that made it easier. I cried with them when I had the urge, but it was when I was alone or just with my husband that I really let it all out, it was very cathartic.

With the pets dying, it was very helpful that my husband shared my grief and cried openly with me, it let me know we were both there for each other. I would encourage you to focus less on not cracking up. Showing your young nephews that it's ok to cry is a great lesson, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with them can help them open up as well. When it comes to really bad,painful stuff, being honest and sad is so much easier in the long run.
posted by wowbobwow at 3:05 PM on December 11, 2007

You can be strong and there for them (which I agree is important right now) and still cry and show that it is hard for you too. I find that the best way to deal with tears when I am with my child is just matter of factly acknowledge the tears ("Yes, mommy is a little sad. Are you sad sometimes too?" and then go from there)
posted by davar at 9:10 AM on December 12, 2007

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