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I Can’t Stand Your Grief

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

You may not have heard the exact words in the title, but I’m sure you’ve felt it by people in your life. Do any of these famous clichés sound familiar: It’s time to move on and Don’t cry and It’ll be OK and He lived a good life.

Why do supposed well-meaning, intelligent (well, some of them) people say these things? Most everyone will accept your struggles with grief for a time. But, you know that people seem to have a tendency to keep time. It’s as if they have a watch that ticks off a certain period of time or a certain number of grief occurrences (“There she goes again grieving about her brother”) at which point their acceptance/allowance of your grief next moves to more of a tolerance and then to a frustration with your “prolonged” grief. About this time you may start to hear the clichés and see the looks or even the turning away from your grief. They’ve now arrived at the “I can’t stand your grief” stage. And, there you are standing in front of them showing them that “this is something I’m not going to get over.”

Another way to look at this is to consider how people’s reaction to you could occur in stages. It might go something like this:

1st stage—We understand you are in deep grief. We are there for you. We comfort you. We excuse you from your normal duties.

2nd stage—It’s been a while and we still see you in grief, but think that you will gradually get better. We understand that it takes time. We offer a cliché or two.

3rd stage—It’s been “quite a while” and we see that glimpses of your old self, but we also see intermittent flashes of your grief. We’re still hoping and suggesting things that could quell your grief. Clichés begin to increase.

4th stage—It’s been a “long while” and it’s clear that your grief has become part of who you are. We wonder if something is wrong with you. None of what you’ve been doing seems to be helping your grief: That support group you’ve been attending, that article on grief, that book on “How to Get Over (or Though) It” (whatever “it” is), or the video of some expert explaining the 17 Stages of Grief. Perhaps counseling would work.

5th stage—It’s been “a very long time” and we not only see that we are not going to get back your old self, we realize that you will never “get over” this death and that you are forever changed. We’ve given up trying. Nothing you’ve done or we’ve done has worked.

6th Stage—We’ve moved on with our lives and hope someday you find answers. Sometimes we think about contacting you, but we feel we’ve done everything we could to help. Moreover, we don’t want to remind you of what you lost.

Does any of this sound familiar? Is there any hope for changing how people react to parents or grandparents who are grieving the death of a child or siblings whose brother or sister has died? There is, but it’s asking a lot.

One way to begin to understand why people react to your grief the way they do is to look at how our brain functions. What I’m going to say next is not fair to your incredibly complex brain. I’m going to combine its multitude of functions into two major functions: (1) to reduce pain; (2) to make sense of the stimuli around it. Now think about someone watching a person in grief—a person like you. How in the world can we teach someone to resist going through some or all of the six stages? As the people around you watch you grieve, consider for a moment, the first function of their brains. If they care at all about you, then watching you in pain causes them pain. At first, (stages 1-3), they seem able to tolerate your pain—and theirs. However, as time passes and the pain for both of you continues, their pain (call it discomfort, uneasiness, worry, awkwardness, anxiety) reaches a point where they must do something to reduce it. They’ve reached a point in their mind that your grief—and their discomfort with it—has started to go on too long. Remember, after attempting to reduce pain, the second of our brain is to make sense out of the world around it. When they try to make sense of your grief, (how could they?), they concluded that there must be something wrong with you. Unfortunately, the average person ends up doing this. Have you lost a friend since your loved one died? If you haven’t, you are lucky.

Now we have come to the important part: Who are these amazing people that (a) find ways to tolerate your and their pain and (b) have found a way to make some sense out of your grief. Several years ago, I created a phrase for what these people are able to do. These individuals Allow People To Be In Pain. The acronym is: APTBIP. Think about it. Here you are standing in front of this person with grief flooding out of your eyes, your mouth, your heart. And, this person does something so simple, yet so difficult for most people: APTBIP. Isn’t this wonderful! This person just lets you FEEL. No “there-there,” or “it’ll be OK,” or “come on, don’t cry.” Just acceptance. Just love for you the way you are at this moment. This painful moment when you feel you cannot go on. This moment when you miss him or her so much you cannot breathe. How does this person react? By letting you be where you are in grief.

If you have a person in your life like this, contact him or her and in your own way say, “Thank you. Thank you for you. Thank you for letting me grieve. Thank you for being in my life and for staying in my life despite your own discomfort as you watch me.”

If you do not have such a person in your life, find him or her or select someone in your life who can learn how to support you while they tolerate pain. Right now you may not have the energy to “teach” someone to be the kind of listener and support person you need. Or, perhaps you’ve tried and it didn’t work. It’s up to you to keep trying. Your alternative is to continue to feel alone around your family and friends.

Once you are ready and you have a person in mind, how do you get started? Here are some beginning steps:

1. Help the person understand, “You cannot fix it. Don’t try.”

2. Whatever I feel (anger guilt, empty, anxious, confused), let me feel it.

3. Whenever I cry, let me. Remember the little poem, “Let me cry until I’m dry.”

4. I’m going to grieve in some way my whole life. Don’t do or try anything to change this.

5. As often as you can, say my loved one’s name. Tell me stories about him or her.

There is more, of course, much more; but these five steps will get you started.

Think about it: if tomorrow people all over the world suddenly began these steps, we’d need fewer support groups, mental health counselors, books, videos, online resources and articles on grief—like this one. What a world it would be!

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