Strength in Tears & Vulnerability // Shelby Burton

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Many people jokingly say that election day, November 8th, was the worst day of their life; I am one of the few people that you can believe.

Hi. My name is Shelby and I lost my favorite person to suicide four months ago, on the same day that half of the world was grieving the country and its presidential choice. After having broken his back in the military, my hero was haunted by unbearable, chronic pain that would ultimately lead him to take his own life. Twelve days later, I had a meeting with my boss to discuss launching our new study: suicide in military cultures. I broke down crying in her office. She asked me: “Are you alright?”

Here’s the thing, I debated lying to her, assuring her that it had just been a long day, that I would be fine. But I did not. I could not. This was a shock, as I have always been regarded as incredibly stoic, someone who keeps her emotions neatly internalized and prides herself on her thick skin. But grief had overtaken me and replaced me with someone who simply said, “No, I’m not.” From then on, I vowed to myself that I would be vulnerable and I would start very simply—by telling the truth.

Whenever people ask how I am doing, I respond, “I guess I am doing okay considering the circumstances” or “No, but I don’t want to talk about it.” The discomfort in their eyes has become so apparent to me. Why do they want me to be okay so badly? Why should I sacrifice my grieving process to appease those who are, quite simply put, uncomfortable? I know, in part, it is because I am socialized to make people feel at ease, to smile and charm others until they are deceived into thinking I am more okay than I am. I am learning that telling the truth, both with others and with myself, is the strongest foundation I have found in the process of moving on. What I did not expect was how taboo this coping process would be perceived.

Later, in seeing the aftermath of such a tragedy, gender roles have surfaced in other noteworthy ways. The females say that they need to be strong and thus cannot cry in front of other loved ones, much less in front of their coworkers or friends, for fear that it will turn into a giant Cry Fest. I hear the cracking in their voice. Nevertheless, they remain blockaded in their minds, held prisoner by the fear of judgment. The males avoid talking altogether, pretending this is not consuming their lives like it is. Can you imagine going through your biggest obstacles and keeping it a secret?

I know that this issue is not restricted to my family. In fact, a few weeks ago, I was sitting with a client and attempting to deconstruct his strict adherence to his own gender role. I asked him to tell me one key difference between men and women. His answer? Strength. His argument? Jackie Kennedy’s response to the assassination of JFK. I let him know that Jackie Kennedy was, in fact, one of the leading ladies who spearheaded the movement of how Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that my client is also diagnosed with, presents itself outside of combat veterans. I let him know that Jackie Kennedy was not disintegrating into fear on that fateful day in Texas. Rather, she was using her body as a human shield to protect her husband’s image and to protect the citizens from being further traumatized by the horrific murder scene. Albeit, Jackie Kennedy came from much privilege. But she raised her children with love and dedication, she used vulnerability to advocate for others with PTSD, and she refused to sacrifice her grief for the comfortability of others.

Why am I telling you these anecdotes? Because it is time that we revolutionize how strength is defined. It is time that individuals allow themselves to grieve properly, and that we accept their grief with understanding and open arms. Whether it is women accepting their tears as a powerful force, men embracing their vulnerability as a necessary evil, or genderqueer folks grieving without others gendering such reactions into dichotomous masculine or feminine boxes, the only way to a healthier and happier life is through progressive change. We also must be accepting of how cultural elements play a role in the intersectionality of one’s identity and how grief is communicated accordingly.

If there is anything that I have learned in the last four months, it is this: there is power and strength in tears and vulnerability. Let us exercise that power freely and without judgment. And let us be truthful and brave in the pursuit of our happiness.

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