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What to Do When Someone Cries

A doll criesAs a psychotherapist, my work frequently involves watching people cry.

I probably spend as much on Kleenex every year as other professionals spend on computer paper.

Far from being fazed by tears, I welcome them because I know how healing they can be.

But that hasn’t always been the case…

A Short History of My Awkward Cluelessness

I entered adulthood as the original Uncomfortable Witness. Since we didn’t cry in my home when I was growing up, I literally had no idea how to respond to tears.

As a result I was not only uncomfortable but flummoxed when people cried.

A dear friend of mine recalls an exchange between us when we were teenagers. She’d been physically hurt somehow, and as we walked back to her home, she was fighting back tears. I responded with impatience.

“Do you know who cries?,” I reportedly said. “Babies! That’s who cries.”

While I don’t remember the exchange, I’m sure my friend’s account is accurate. It’s a precious miracle I still have her in my life today.

Another time, in college, a female acquaintance unexpectedly dissolved in tears while telling a sad story. The only other person in the room was a male student, and he went over and put his arm around her.

Taking my cue from him, I went nearer and held out a box of tissues.

If that other student hadn’t been there, I would have been bothered and stumped instead of just bothered.

If I Can Do This, Anyone  Can

Cut to today: A client is crying in my office and I lean in, sharing the moment and feeling as comfortable as if I were on my couch at home, curled up with a good book.

I feel calm, even content. I don’t have to guess what’s going on with her; it’s right there on her face. It’s a cue that I can relax, because in this moment I know what’s happening and what’s required of me, more or less.

♦             ♦             ♦

If you feel awkward when people cry, take it from someone who’s been there: It doesn’t have to be that way. You can be someone it feels good to cry with, and that is a wonderful thing.

The following are some ideas about what to do when someone cries. Feel free to add your own in the Comments section below.

1) Squelch the urge to tell them to look on the bright side.

I know you’re just trying to help, but it’s incredibly invalidating and not at all helpful when someone’s feeling sad about something, to explain to them why they shouldn’t feel sad (or mad, or regretful, or envious, etc.).

If they could choose to feel better in this moment, they would. But they can’t, so be with them where they are.

2) Look but don’t necessarily touch.

Someone who wants you to hold them will probably come closer and/or ask to be held. If they don’t do that, stay mentally present and let the crying person know you’re with them just by using good eye contact. You can lean forward slightly to communicate interest, engagement and acceptance.

If you’re not a toucher, that’s perfectly okay. You’re more likely to make a mistake by touching than by keeping your distance anyway. Just be generous with eye contact, compassionate attention and sympathy. But if they ask for a hug, do your best.

If your relationship calls for it, you can check in later when the tears are dry and ask how you did. Did you miss a cue about what they needed? Any tips for next time?

3) If you feel like you must say something, make sympathetic sounds or statements of agreement.

For example,

  • That sounds terrible
  • No wonder you’re hurt
  • I’m so sorry that happened to you

These are validating. Don’t think they’re being reasonable? Save that debate for later. See my article on how to validate someone for ideas on what to do (and what not to do) to be supportive.

4) Let go of the need to “fix it.”

It can be hard at first to feel like you’re just standing there like a coat rack. Feeling useless, awkward or frustrated is something you’ll get past with practice.

The truth is, you’re being helpful and supportive just by being there.

5) Get comfortable with your own tears.

If you haven’t cried in a long time, you could find it almost intolerable to be around someone who’s crying. Their tears will seem to pull on something in your soul, and you might find yourself having an emotional reaction.

If someone else’s crying makes you cry, too, that’s perfectly fine. “Better out than in,” I always say.

Tears are just liquid emotion that spills out when there’s an excess. Nothing will be fixed by shutting down the weeping reflex. Besides, tears of emotion literally help us feel better.

If you feel angry or impatient with a crying person, I’ll bet you ten bucks there’s something softer under that irritation.

The take-home point is this: There’s nothing special you need to do when someone cries, except BE PRESENT.

If you focus on that, rather than trying to say or do the right thing, then all will be well … for both of you.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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16 Responses to "What to Do When Someone Cries"

  • Rosie
    November 30, 2013 - 9:39 am Reply

    Tina, these are very helpful suggestions as to what one can do when others cry. My problem is that I don’t know what to do when I cry………….so I don’t. It takes so much energy to hold back, but since I don’t know what to do, or fear what might/could happen, I can’t take the chance.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 30, 2013 - 12:14 pm Reply

      I feel for you, Rosie, and you are not alone. Many people worry about what might/could happen if they let themselves cry. I think it’s the not-knowing that makes it seem dangerous. These tips should help even with your own tears. Try them and see! Then decide what you’re going to do with all that extra energy you free up…

      Remember that wallowing can be constructive as long as 1) you wallow in feelings, not thoughts or actions; and 2) your attitude is one of self-compassionate patience.

      For posts that clarify this concept, see the Constructive Wallowing page on this blog.

      Many thanks for sharing something so personal and universal.

      • Rosie
        November 30, 2013 - 12:48 pm Reply

        Yes, fear of the unknown………..it can be paralyzing. Thanks Tina. I have been working on this for a few years and my therapist says I’m getting closer. Just not there yet.

  • lvoisin
    November 30, 2013 - 12:44 pm Reply

    Great post, Tina! Thank you 🙂

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 30, 2013 - 1:45 pm Reply

      Thank YOU for hanging in there with me, my dear old friend.

  • Em Jay
    December 1, 2013 - 6:31 am Reply

    Hi Tina!
    Great advice!
    I remember at about 19 years old someone in a group I was with told us that her Gran was ill and in her words she ‘didn’t know what to do’. Then she burst into tears. Basically, I just froze. I was with her emotionally because my Grand dad had died a few years before, so I knew exactly how she felt, but I wasn’t able to express this. I’m ok now, if a friend cries and try to just be there without being too intrusive. But I seem more uncomfortable with my own tears. I do cry, when I have to, but it’s almost like I have to give myself permission to cry. I find it very cathartic though when I do. I just wish all those years ago, I’d been a bit more responsive to my friend.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      December 1, 2013 - 10:20 am Reply

      Em Jay, your experience is similar to mine at 19 except that you were one step ahead of me; I hadn’t suffered any losses yet at that age. But I froze just as you said you did. That’s a good word for it.

      I love that you’re now able to give yourself permission to cry and that you find it cathartic; hope others will be inspired by your comment. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Peggy
    December 1, 2013 - 6:19 pm Reply

    I think that crying is the cleansing of your soul, when it hurts more then you can understand. Everyone needs to cry when they hurt. Why else would we be able to do that. Even happy
    soul feelings make me cry….like seeing a new born baby for the first time. Crying is a good thing.

  • Nani
    December 28, 2013 - 4:22 pm Reply

    Hi, I don’t normally unravel or cry but I feel we all have our tipping moments & crying is giving your self the permit you are human & it’s ok. Few weeks back my dog died, two days later a friend died & a cousin the next day very suddenly. I was involved with both family & had not slept in three nights & was home resting very exhausted when a friend call all bushy tail & happy. I answered her questioned & told her I will speak to her later but she kept needling me that I did not sound right & I told her of my loss & she had no remorse & said ” it was just a dog ” at that point I burst out crying & could not talk further. i told her i can’t talk & hung up. She called back few minutes later to say sorry & I still did not want to talk & she went all mad saying I need to see a therapist for grief management. Where I am originally from we don’t need a therapist to cry to. How do I tell people like this friend you are being insensitive & you don’t need therapy for laughing that’s as natural as crying is it not?

    Nani

    • Tina Gilbertson
      December 28, 2013 - 9:03 pm Reply

      I’m so very sorry for your loss, Nani. Yes, we do all have our tipping moments and it is perfectly okay to cry when you lose someone you’re attached to, including a beloved pet.

      Here in Portland there are grief groups for people who’ve lost pets, as well as those who’ve lost a human being.

      Joining such a group, assuming there’s one near you, could help you feel that you’re not alone. This can be important if people in your life right now are uncomfortable with your sadness.

      Thank you for taking the time to stop and leave a comment. I’m sending you warm wishes and good vibes as you heal.

      • Nani
        December 30, 2013 - 12:35 pm Reply

        Don’t you think grief has a time period before rushing to seek grief councilor? People learn to handle grief and learn how to move on and embrace life. My dog was 19 years old & life comes to an end for all of us. I just feel I was exhausted when my friend called she want me to hear what her boyfriend got for her & i was tired. Oh well the Jimmy Choo boots have worn out & she is in therapy now.

        • Tina Gilbertson
          December 30, 2013 - 2:48 pm Reply

          Well, you certainly haven’t lost your sense of humor, Nani!

          Yes, I do think grief has its own time period, and exhaustion is not the same as grief – although it’s extremely common for the two to go together.

          Grief groups aren’t for everyone. For some, the chance to be heard and understood by others who are grieving is worthwhile; others prefer to experience loss privately. For all of us, sleep and rest are as precious as compassion during hard times.

          Take good care.

  • Sara
    April 13, 2017 - 9:09 am Reply

    But if someone was crying and i was not there with them, what can i do to make them feel better?

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