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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 08 2014

Minding our Elders: Elder’s tears may stem from happiness

DEAR CAROL: My mother has had a series of strokes and lives in a good nursing home nearby. I do love her and I know she loves me, but her negative personality has been difficult over the years, and our relationship has been rocky. I’ve never really felt that I could please her. Yesterday, as I sat with her in the nursing home, I put my arms around her and said, “I love you, Mom.” She began to cry. I don’t ever recall seeing her cry and I was crushed. I’d do anything to see her even a little pleased with me. Was this the wrong thing to do?

– Leanne

DEAR LEANNE: It was exactly the right thing to do, Leanne. Given your mom’s personality, it’s no wonder you were surprised when she cried. Yet, she did. Tears are generally thought of as a sign of unhappiness or pain, but people can also shed tears of happiness and joy. I believe that her tears were good tears, though it’s possible that her ability to hold back emotion as she seems to have done in the past has been affected by her strokes.

Many people who have had strokes will cry very easily because of a disturbance in the brain. However, even though her strokes may have made crying easier, the tears were very likely a sign of genuine emotion. She may have been feeling grateful you held her and you told her you love her. It’s also possible that she may have been realizing what she’s missed throughout the years by pushing you away with her negativity.

You did something remarkable by holding your mom and telling her you love her. You opened the door to the possibility of healing past wounds. Her tears mean you touched her heart. Please continue to do this and let her cry if that is her response. You may find yourself shedding a few healing tears, as well. Listen to your mother even when her negative side comes out. Past events in her life may have contributed to her disagreeable personality. Additionally, life after several strokes is not easy for even an upbeat person, and depression isn’t unusual.

What you are doing for her now will ensure a better future for you after she is gone. When we can let go of past hurts and heal connections before we lose someone to death, we benefit.

In your case, it’s likely that nothing can entirely erase the memory that you felt you couldn’t please your mom when you were younger, but now you may be able to ease the pain from those memories. It’s even possible you and your mom may discuss the past, but I would leave that up to her. Continue what you are doing. You sound like a person who may well be able to forgive the past and cherish both the present and whatever future you can still have with your mother.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.