An important way in which children learn is through the modeling of a primary caregiver. If bereaved children are in an environment where adults are living out this myth, they will often follow suit.
Children may repress their tears either because they have internalized adult demands for repressing feelings, or they have identified with how the adults surrounding them repress their own tears. Unfortunately, many adults associate tears of grief with personal inadequacy and weakness. Crying on the part of bereaved children often generates feelings of helplessness in adults. Out of a wish to protect the children (and themselves) from pain, well-meaning, misinformed adults often directly inhibit the experience of tears. Comments similar to, “You need to be strong for your mother,” or “Tears won’t bring him back,” and “He wouldn’t want you to cry,” discourage the expression of tears. Yet crying is nature’s way of releasing internal tension in the body and allows the child to communicate a need to be comforted.
Another purpose of crying is postulated in the context of attachment theory, where in tears are intended to bring about reunion with the person who has died. While reunion cannot occur, crying is thought to be biologically based and a normal way of attempting to reconnect with the person who has died. The frequency and intensity of crying eventually wanes as the hoped-for reunion does not occur.
The expression of tears is not a sign of weakness in adults or children. The capacity of bereaved children to share tears is an indication of their willingness to do the “work of mourning.” As loving adults we can better assist children by modeling our own expression of tears.