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Tears in a Bottle

November 15, 2010

Late one afternoon in the fall of the year, a fifteen-year-old girl stood in the church office sobbing, waiting to see me. We sat down together.  I handed her a box of tissues.

“Tell me about your tears,” I urged.

Barely able to speak beyond her deep hurt, she explained that she not been selected cheerleader at her school.  More were not selected than were chosen, but her plight was different.  Her mother and all three of her older sisters had been cheerleaders at the same high school she now attended.  From the time she was a little girl, she had gone to football games with her parents and watched her older sisters lead cheers.  She had looked forward to the day when she would follow in their footsteps.  Alas, it was not to be.

As I talked with her, a concept came to mind that had never occurred to me before.  The world has plenty of cheerleaders, but precious few grief leaders.  I suggested that she befriend the others who had not been selected.  She discovered that out of her own disappointment, she could make a difference in the lives of other students who also felt left out.

Over the years I watched as this young woman grew into maturity.  She has become a person who gives encouragement, bringing comfort and strength to others, often sharing their tears.

The world needs grief leaders, people of compassion and sensitivity who can guide sorrowing people along the path of bereavement.  Grief leaders are those who are not afraid of tears, those of others, or their own.  They understand that tears are a gift of grace.

The psalmist turns a remarkable phrase to convey the notion that tears are to be treasured. “You put my tears in a bottle.” (Psalm 56:8) The verse implies that God values our tears so much that he keeps them in a bottle.

The word lachrymatory is derived from the Latin lacrima, meaning tear.  These small vessels of terra cotta or glass have been found in Roman and Greek tombs. They were bottles into which mourners dropped their tears. The bottles are shaped like a flask with a long small neck and a body in the form of a bulb.

During the Civil War, women from both the North and the South were said to have cried into tear bottles and saved them until their boyfriends and husbands returned from battle. Their collected tears would show the soldiers how much they were adored and missed.

Lachrymatories have once again become popular. They are created by artists who work in glass in many different cultures. References to the power of the tear bottle occur in contemporary literature.

Following our son Erik’s death ten years ago, Clare gave a necklace to our newly widowed daughter-in-law, June.  A small antique bottle, a lachrymatory, was fastened as a pendant on a chain.  The lachrymatory was an appropriate present. An explanation of the gift is found in Rebecca Wells’ book The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  “In olden days it was one of the greatest gifts you could give someone.  It meant you loved them, that you shared a grief that brought you together.” (Page 348, HarperCollins, 1996)

Clare and June thought that the only problem with the tiny bottle was that it was simply not large enough.

One physician who suffered a deep loss said, “I know now why we are equipped with tear ducts.  They are intended to be used.”

I continue to be astonished when well-meaning people instruct grieving people not to cry.  If we cannot cry at the time of deep sorrow, then when?

In the early stages of grief, there are times when tears flow uncontrollably.  At other times, we are better able to monitor our crying and can even choose our own time and place to weep.  This is not to say that our tears should be postponed indefinitely.  The truth is that sometimes it is just inconvenient to cry. Clare gave up wearing mascara after Erik died.

When Erik died, we gladly opened our home to many visitors.  We found ourselves sometimes working very hard to help others know what to say.  We also quickly learned that as a family we needed a place that was off limits to all people other than immediate family.

There is a level of grief that is for family only.  There are expressions of hurt that belong in the context of family intimacy where nothing is unspeakable. Our place of seclusion was the second floor of our home.  Even our closest friends respected our need to get away from the crowd.  As family members, we took turns greeting people and then retreating to our upstairs privacy to weep and console each other.

My wife, Clare, has been my companion in both joy and sorrow.  Her clear insight and her honest wit put things into a perspective that I appreciate.  On the issue of choosing a time and place to weep, Clare said to friends, “I cry in the shower.  Somehow being in the flow of warm water gives me permission to cry.  It’s the best place to really cry alone.  It’s just not as messy as crying any other time.”

Though we may not keep them in bottles, our tears are a gift to be treasured.


Kirk H. Neely
© November 2010



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