The news broke, and then came the tears. Rivers of them expressed in images and words all over social media, drenching Facebook, Twitter, Vine, and Instagram. Fans of the teen sensation band One Direction, learning of member Zayn Malik’s departure, retreated to their bedrooms and school bathrooms to mourn. With an estimated three million fans in North America and the United Kingdom alone, that’s a lot of tears.
Regardless of culture, homeland, spiritual practice, socioeconomic status, and age, there are tears. Some have a clear function, like the tears that wash grit away from the eyeball after a sandstorm. Others, the ones attached to emotions, are a little more complicated; they can be controlled and manipulated, held back or left to flow. These, and the tears of boy band breakups, are also chemically different than “functional” tears.
A crying face is universally recognizable—we all experience emotions like amusement, anger, fear, and sadness—and it’s pervasive enough to have become enmeshed in the lexicon. Popular idioms and terms related to tears extend beyond “having a good cry,” like those poor girls mourning the death of One Direction as they knew it, as their mothers and grandmothers lamented the breakup of The Beatles decades before.
Crying is perceived, by some, as a sign of weakness, so phrases like “have a good cry” can destigmatize it and maybe even help us embrace the benefits of crying. Emotional tears aid in the release of stress hormones, so when the weeping ends, we often feel less harried and in a better mood. Attaching the word “good” to “crying” creates a different category of tears; they’re different than the tears of dark depression, the hair-pulling pain that comes from crying over a broken heart. Those hormones still do their job, but it’s hard to use the word “good” around tears that pool in the depths of despair.
Being “driven to tears” implies a loss of control; a person or event does the work of “bringing on the tears,” and the crier is powerless to stop it. Sometimes they’re contagious. Being suggestible, if I see a loved one “crying their eyes out,” I can be “moved to tears” myself. In times of great sadness, I’ll be “reduced to tears” by a total stranger’s grief, like the sight of an envelope addressed to “Mummy” propped among wreaths of white flowers on a coffin.
On September 6, 1997 at 1:08 am, I dissolved into tears watching Diana, Princess of Wales’ casket wind its way through the streets of London, trailed by five men, two of them altogether too young to be burying their mother. Lady Diana didn’t wield power in the formal sense, but her unique style of celebrity and charitable influence captured the adoration of the world. She represented the Everywoman: mother, wife, sister, and friend; despite her celebrity, she was accessible and relatable. In the days after her death, billions of flower bouquets, candles, and other tributes were placed at the gates of Buckingham Palace and British Consulate buildings all over the world. Collective outpourings of grief, the shared experience of loss, bring us closer together as technology invites the world into each other’s living rooms on the radio, television, and internet. Diana’s funeral drew two thousand people to Westminster Abbey, millions into the streets of London, and 32.78 million to their television sets in Britain alone, with an estimated two billion viewers worldwide. It was one of the most watched events in history, with an unprecedented display of collective grief.
World-shaking events, the kind that shape generations, come in the form of natural or manmade tragedies. In Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy shook the world. Televisions in homes, businesses, and sales windows were simultaneously tuned in to the news from the grassy knoll. A few days later, during his funeral, strangers lining the streets cried openly for a man they knew only as a figurehead. They mourned not only their leader, but the loss of the embodiment of the American Dream as it had thrived during the “Camelot era” in the White House. Mourning together, grief can be more bearable when it’s shouldered by those around you, strangers in all ways but one.
The assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King (1968) and musician John Lennon (1980) were similarly witnessed in living rooms around the world, and mourned by large groups drawn together in collective pain. They grieved for their leaders and idols, and the dreams they represented. For the next generation, we’d see this type of collective outpouring with the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994.
Into the 21st century, the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, DC were the first events to face the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle. Shocked citizens shared their grief in front of television sets and office computer screens watching, in real time, as events unfolded. Major news outlets scrambled to manage a deluge of traffic to their sites. When new developments waned, footage of the events was aired over and over again, creating indelible images in the minds of millions of viewers. Mourners moved to public spaces to erect memorials, hold vigils, and share their collective shock and grief.
Today, social media plays host to vigils and acts as a repository for public outpourings of grief. Actors Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Leonard Nemoy recently clogged Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds with remembrances and RIP messages.
Collective grief experiences in public and private spaces—physical or online—provide a venue to come together in today’s increasingly isolated world. While some, like me, are compelled to grieve alone, others feed from, and find relief in the collective catharsis that comes from crying surrounded by likeminded mourners.
Even in celebration, like convocation ceremonies at the end of the school year, tears mingle with the pride of achievement and excitement of future possibilities. Graduating students find themselves at the end of a long journey, eager to celebrate, but tempered with anticipation and fear. They may find solace in the fact that their classmates are experiencing the same feelings.
In The Navigator newspaper office, we have losses of our own. Many of us will stride across the stage at convocation, leaving only three staff members to return in September. While we’re excited for our peers and the lives that await them, we’ll miss their thoughtful contributions to the paper, humorous headlines, and bad puns. Completing production on the final issue of Volume 46 of The Navigator, we will likely experience a collective outpouring of our own, lightened by bad jokes about bodily functions. We look forward to welcoming new staff members, and new writers and editors to lend their voices to VIU’s student newspaper. And we’ll miss the old ones.