The Difficulty of Answering ‘How Are You?’ for Someone Who Is Grieving

From some, the question is merely going through our culture’s expected greeting convention. From others, there is sincere caring, wanting to express sympathy for our situation, and asking for an update on our healing process.

Unfortunately, I am having trouble navigating responding to this social nicety. When asked, “How are you?” I typically do not want to answer honestly, especially in a public setting, because I don’t want to board the occasionally compartmentalized, yet always complicated roller coaster of my ever-changing emotions. Usually, where I start my response is not where I end it. While, “Fine. How are you?” might be the expected and easiest response, it is not the truth, nor does it seem to honor my son Tom’s presence, and now absence, in our lives. A friend suggested, “OK, enough,” which worked pretty well for a few months. And watching folks process that response is somewhat amusing. But recently, at some moments, I am better than “OK,” so that one does not work as well anymore.

The most difficult person to answer is the person who asks, “How are you?” in such a way — saddened tone, downcast eyes, and wrinkled forehead — that indicates their expected answer. The tone and expression are used to show how much they care and communicate they have the time and interest to hear the real answer. And for that I am truly, truly grateful. Knowing Tom is not forgotten means everything to me. But when asked the question in that way, there is little freedom for me to answer anything positive. It feels as though I am expected to fall apart. In fact, responding with anything positive feels as though I am letting them down, robbing them of supporting me on my grief journey.

This week, a friend who experienced a sudden loss a few years ago suggested a better greeting for those known to be grieving is, “It is nice to see you today.” It is a positive way to start a conversation. It acknowledges the person has found the wherewithal to leave her house and move through life. It tells the person she has been missed, and, in unspoken words, acknowledges her loss. That generous statement opens the door to the person grieving to answer with whatever she feels comfortable, a simple smile and “thank you,” or a more involved invitation into her healing progress.

Please, let me be clear. Do not stop checking in on those of us who are grieving. Your words, acts, and hugs, are all lifeboats on the sea of grief. But understand how that simple question can be very, very complicated to answer.

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