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Crying in Public Places

Yesterday I saw a young woman crying in public. Well, I heard her first. A breathy sniffly pant to my left, loud enough to sound out of place in the inner city café where I was looking awfully busy and important on my laptop.

At first I thought she was laughing, so I turned to see what was so funny. My heart dropped when I realised she was sobbing, not snickering. Then she looked straight at me, and in that instant I could see she was mortified.

I felt SO bad. I wanted to say something. “Oh God, please don’t think I’m gawking at you, I didn’t know you were crying, I thought you were laughing, and now I’ve made it so much worse, I’M SORRY, would you like a bit of my white chocolate and raspberry muffin?”

I didn’t say that of course. I pretended to be struck with an urgent need to scroll through Twitter, as though the free world depended on it, pondering as I did so where the future of humanity lies if a person can’t openly wail over her skinny latte without feeling like a freak.

Because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? We’ve all been floored by a devastating truth – a death, a break-up, the sight of ourselves in bikinis on a particularly hormonal day – and we’ve completely lost control in an unfortunately public place.

I remember the day my Grandpa died. I had a ridiculous fight with my husband, and stormed out, only to collapse on a street corner in a sloppy weepy mess for the passers by to step over. One businessman threw me a $2 coin.

Or the time I was dumped while sitting in a café window in a very busy shopping strip. As I struggled to contain the record-breaking amount of snot streaming out of my face, I desperately prayed I would be mistaken for a Performance Artist in the Fringe Arts Festival that was on at the time. Anything to hide the shame of my tears.

I wonder, looking back at my broken hearted self, if a stranger had stepped in and patted my hand would I have accepted the act of kindness? Or would I have gathered my wet tissues and escaped, trying to save face?

I think the answer, for most of us, would be the latter. Regardless of the fact that to be human is to ugly cry, we fear exposing our own vulnerability. And we fear sharing our raw honest true self, because we are terrified of judgement. We’re crippled by that torturous feeling that someone will see us as different, strange, stupid, weak, or worst of all, not worthy of love.

It’s a mistaken assumption, because in fact, when it comes to crying in public, the greatest judgement is usually reserved for women who do not cry. Think of Joanne Lees and decades before her Lindy Chamberlain. For them, their stoic shell-shocked silence invited a hysterical, totally inaccurate, and I would argue misogynist, judgement of them as murderers! As though a woman who chooses to grieve in her own way, in her own space, is suspicious, defective and probably making deals with the devil.

Grief is an unknown road. Until you find yourself on that path, you have no idea how you will navigate it. There will be times when you silent cry, sitting in a toilet cubicle at work. And there will be times when you blubber like a baby on a bus and passengers around you move seats to avoid the crazy lady.

However they flow, tears are a crucial part of staying healthy, and they should never be stifled. In fact, they should be encouraged as a clear step towards a happier future. And when we find a stranger’s sorrow spilling over into our own lives, then it is up to us to mop up the mess with a giant collective Kleenex, such that the raw honesty is treasured. Vulnerability, if treated right, can be a place of great strength, because it is the thing that connects us all, and provides an opportunity for greater understanding of each other.

So the next time I tip over from Keep Calm and Carry On to Get Hysterical and Give Up, I might accept a gentle rub of the shoulder or an awkward hug from a stranger. And just so you know, if it’s you that’s helping me out, I’d definitely take the white chocolate and raspberry muffin.

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