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November 27, 2017 Brigitte Ganger

Do You Cry When You Drive?

It’s more common than you think

Do You Cry When You Drive?
Crying while driving is a common phenomenon while grieving. Has this ever happened to you? (Shutterstock)

My first grief counseling session was about six months after my mother's death, and about a month after my father's. I didn't have any expectations. I just knew it was about time I talked to a professional about what happened.


I was assigned by my university to Kathleen, a gentle, grey-haired Catholic lady. The very first thing she did was hand me a survey form to complete. 


"It will help me get a quick idea of where you're at. Then we can talk about your answers." 


It was a typical intake form, with basic questions about me. I quickly gave my name, age, major, and family doctor's name.


Then came the questions that would probe my grief. 


When did your loved one pass away?


Mom - May


Dad - October


TRUE or FALSE


Memories of my loved one upset me.


True


I am exhausted by everyday tasks.


Sometimes.


I find it difficult to complete my school work or other tasks.


False


I am drawn to places or objects that remind me of my loved one.


True


I feel disbelief when I think of the death.


True


I feel guilt when I think of the death.


False Sometimes


I feel anger  when I think of the death.


Not much anymore


I have suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide.


False


I knew by now she was trying to find out whether or not I was experiencing complicated grief. Complicated grief is intense, prolonged mourning. Even though grief varies from person to person, it's normal to make progress, have setbacks and eventually heal. When that doesn't happen, or doesn't happen on a typical timeline, counselors might consider your grief complicated. 


But then, an absolutely unexpected question. One that almost knocked the wind out of me.


Do you cry when you drive?


Um, actually, yes. Like, every single time I get in the car alone. I bawl my eyes out and scream. I pull over and calm down. Then I drive away and lose it all over again. I park, spend 10 minutes fixing my eyeliner in the mirror and then go about my day. For a long time, I'd been doing that same old routine. 

Tears blur your vision, and take focus from the road. Crying is healthy—just make sure you're safely parked before risking an accident on the road. (Shutterstock)


But that's not why I came to counseling. I never intended to tell anyone about my car cries. And, in fact, I hadn't even really consciously thought about it. To be fair, random, unexpected, insane crying happens pretty often when you're grieving. By this point, I was pretty used to it.


Triggers of grief are everywhere. 4 Non Blondes on the radio at the grocery store. A lady on the street that looks the same as mom from behind. Forgot to feed the dog because that's what she used to do. A dahlia. 


You expect these things to be upsetting, especially on the heels of a very significant loss in your life. Even if a big meltdown was unexpected, in retrospect, it makes sense when the smell of her favorite flower caused it. 


I never even registered that it was specifically happening in the car until that moment.


"Why does it say ‘Do you cry when you drive?' — is that normal?"


It's normal


For most people, driving is an automatic and instinctual task. Have you ever hopped in the car and driven home, only to wonder whether you stopped at all the red lights? We forget the details of the drive home because we're on autopilot, unconsciously concentrating on following the rules of the road and only reacting to and registering the anomalies. 


According to Kathleen, crying while driving can actually be a good sign. It makes sense that this state of focused-yet-automatic concentration would be the perfect breeding ground for a huge cry. You've moved through the first few months of your grief. You're learning to prepare for and cope with extreme triggers. You go about your day without letting your grief in as much. Even though the grief returns, you can usually postpone it long enough to carry on with work, social events and the day-to-day. Although it is possible to hold back expressions of grief during this time, it takes effort. If that emotion has been locked inside you all day, it will have to come out at some point.


And then you get in the car alone, and it all comes rushing out. It may be the only moment of solitude you get in a busy day. Time spent in the car may have always been your time to decompress, and mull over the events of the day. 


Safety first


It's healthy to express emotion, and crying is a typical part of grief for many people. Never feel ashamed to cry. It's not a good idea to try to hold in emotion, or avoid tears. However, crying and driving is not safe. 


Even if driving can become an automatic task for many people, attention to the road is crucial. Crying can blur your vision, and the accompanying emotions are distracting on the road. If you are crying while driving, pull over and get it out of your system. Gather yourself, and continue on your way. If this is a chronic issue for you, budget more travel time until the issue eases. 


If you are unable to stop crying, contact a trusted loved one to talk you through your feelings, or pick you up. The last thing you want to do is let your grief cause an accident, or another death. 


The takeaway


There are many unexpected grief reactions you can experience in the aftermath of a loss. Although not everyone will experience sudden crying while driving, most people will show emotion that is unfamiliar to them when processing a death. 


Don't judge yourself too harshly if you are exhibiting uncharacteristic emotional reactions. They will likely pass, or at least ease, as you move through the worst of your grief. If you are experiencing a sudden reaction to grief that is outside of your control, find a place that is safe—physically, as well as emotionally—to feel your feelings. That may mean pulling over for a cry, asking for support from a friend, or finding solitude to freely grieve. 


If you think you're experiencing complicated grief, it might be beneficial to seek out a grief counselor. I found Kathleen through my university's counseling program. Many insurance plans have allowances for counseling, and there are local programs you can access to link up with the right grief counselor. When you talk to a professional, you often discover that the weird grief reactions you are having are, in fact, typical, healthy expressions of sorrow. 


Do what works for you. By leaning in to your grief, you can mitigate some of the pain you will feel, and find healthy ways to cope.

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