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"How Are You?" Don't Ask, but Definitely Ask

Personal Perspective: It's a difficult question for people in grief.

Key points

  • It helps grievers to have a few true and appropriate responses for when someone asks, "How are you?"
  • In many circumstances, an honest account of a griever's pain is inappropriate.
  • Grievers must learn who to trust with their true feelings.
Afif Ramdhasuma/Unsplash
Source: Afif Ramdhasuma/Unsplash

We want people to ask, and at the same time, we hate it when they do.

“How are you doing?”

Sometimes what we think, but don’t snark in response is, How do you think I’m doing?

But we keep that to ourselves because that would be a crummy way to respond to an innocent and well-meaning question—a question that nevertheless rankles because we know it would be best to grit our teeth and respond with something hopeful, at the very least.

We have learned to entrust our painful truth—that we are forever changed—to only a select few people. Grief is harsh stuff, inappropriate in casual social situations. Exposing our pain to the wrong people at the wrong time can result in so many unhelpful responses.

Quite often, if the person knows of our loss, the question feels weighted with their hope that we will give the kind of cheerfully benign answer the inquiry elicits in ordinary circumstances. People want us to be okay, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it puts us in a quandary: We want to ease the other person’s discomfort while also being true to our emotions.

Denying our sadness feels like a betrayal to the person we mourn, yet we neither want to be Debby Downer nor face the awkwardness of someone who wasn’t prepared for the truth.

The Conundrum of the Question

Of course, even worse than being asked the question is not being asked, as if the other person has forgotten the cataclysm that has occurred in our lives. We are, for longer than you might imagine, the walking wounded. We try not to wear our broken hearts on our sleeve but hope people can nonetheless see through us and recognize it.

So we neither want to talk about our grief nor not talk about it, and there’s really very little anyone can say or do that feels “right”—although there is plenty that can be wrong. (I tell people that if what you plan to say starts with the words “At least…,” then don’t say it. Just don’t.) Yes, this puts everyone in an awkward position. Nothing is easy around grief.

Of course, it’s different around our most trusted friends and family, people who understand that the greatest kindness is to simply listen when we need to spill out our sorrow and fear, who don’t try to distract us or bright-side us or give advice, because there is no useful advice under the circumstances—especially from people who have not suffered the kind of loss we have. Presence and courage in the face of unmitigable pain are all that is required of the listener.

Ways to Respond

Because people will persist in asking, I have developed a few stock responses to the dreaded question that feel right for me.

Early on, my response was, “Functional but sad.” Now, in the third year since my loss, my response when I feel like being honest might be, “Okay…grading on a curve” or maybe “Hanging in there.” If I don’t feel like being honest, I just say, “Okay,” and change the subject.

We who grieve eventually, sometimes painfully, learn that not everyone deserves access to our sacred pain. But if you must ask, perhaps try this: “How are you doing today?” Because grief ebbs and flows, and your acknowledgment of this lets us know that you see us. We might tell you the truth—or not. But thanks for asking. Really.

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