Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

tears and the compassion of suffering-with

Filed in Dating Violence, Domestic Violence, voices :: June 24, 2010

IStock_000005444204XSmall Yesterday I cried in the back corner booth of a bagel restaurant while having lunch with a friend.

Long ago I learned to hold back my tears because of someone’s belief that to cry for myself was self-indulgent, not to mention red-eyed and -nosed unattractive.  It meant that I was making too much of things, being too sensitive.  I’ve unlearned those teachings enough that tears come easier now, especially in private.

But public tears for someone else were still another matter.

A few months ago, another, relatively new friend teared up while telling me something that was going on in her life.  Uncomfortable, I averted my eyes.  I rationalized at the time that I was giving her privacy, but as soon as my eyes shifted, I felt the connection with her break a little, which is probably what I wanted. I was not giving her privacy, but taking it for myself, and afterward I regretted retreating from her pain.  I felt stingy.

A few weeks ago, a domestic violence survivor told me her story, and she was dry-eyed, but I cried.  The connection between us increased with my tears.

I got it.  This was compassion, from the Latin “to suffer with.”  Compassion given and received.

So yesterday when my friend told me about her ongoing struggle, I cried.  I apologized, worried about upsetting her, being, heaven forbid, “emotional.”

She said that my tears were the best gift I could have given her.

This post is partly in response to the word “compassion” in Dian Reid’s Self-Evident Challenge.


  1. Julie Jordan Scott

    Beautiful, oh – so beautiful.
    Permission to feel those emotions and then show those emotions… I am with your friend: that your tears were the best gift you could have given.

  2. whollyjeanne

    aw, now, see, when you put it like that, it makes me wish i cried more. seriously, though, this is such a tender, sweet, compelling post. a vitally important life lesson, told eloquently and succinctly. in academia, as i prepared for a career as a therapist, i was told that getting too involved – getting close enough to touch, hug, shed tears or even think about it was a cardinal sin. worse, even. and i can understand the rationale behind that, and yes, it’s true in many cases. but not always. and most importantly, it’s when i found another career path. it’s when i knew i didn’t have what it takes to be a certified therapist. sometimes – like your yesterday – tears are the best gift and the perfect validation, the perfect salve.

  3. Alana

    I too believe that showing depth of emotion for someone else’s experience is one of the biggest gifts we can give. It has certainly felt that way to me when I’m on the receiving end. Here’s to letting the tears/love/compassion flow.

  4. Shannon

    I struggle with this too, after spending so long learning to hold back my emotions… all kinds of emotion. This makes me almost wish I was more of a crier, but for now I’ll go with learning to be even more open. Hear, hear.
    Also thankful, like Jeanne, that I’m not in a profession where I need to cultivate that sort of reserve. There’s a time and a place, but we’re all cut off enough from each other already and it’s hard to willingly contribute to that.

  5. Meredith

    Your giving words to your journey of ‘freedom of expression’ normalizes and empowers others.
    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  6. Tara Mohr

    Such a beautiful post.
    I have a few fond memories of times like this – when I was present enough, and felt safe enough, to let tears flow because of words a friend was sharing about their life. Always depeened our connection, always made them feel moved and cared for.
    I experience the same thing with joy too – that difference between the fake-ish “Congratulations!” and seeing that a friend is truly joyful, happy, uplifted because of something positive that is happening in my life. That always makes me feel so nurtured, and so grateful.
    I don’t know about the idea of compassion as “suffering with” because to me the spirit of compassion and the spirit of suffering are in conflict – I find compassion to be its own peace and relief – but I do resonate with the power of being connected to, being emotionally moved by the joys and trials of the people in our midst.