I have struggled with this question since the moment Ben received his diagnosis. Those are usually the first words out of someone’s mouth when they see me, and then a look immediately crosses their face and I suspect they are thinking one of two things:
“God. That was a stupid question to ask. Why did I ask her that? How the Hell do I expect her to be doing? Dumb, dumb, dumb. I’m so embarrassed.”
“Please don’t answer me honestly. I was just asking out of habit. Please, please, just say “ok” and keep going. Maybe if I keep walking away she won’t really answer. God, I don’t want to hear her answer … it ‘s probably sad.”
I’ve read a lot of blogs written by the bereaved who offer suggestions on what people can say to those who are grieving. Most suggest that one should not ask, “How are you?” but rather they should ask “How are you doing today?” Funny thing, the question “how are you today” is actually my least favourite question. During the worst part of this ordeal when I was asked how I was today I always wanted to answer “I am doing the exact fucking same as I was yesterday. And I will do exactly the fucking same tomorrow. Possibly worse.” (Clearly I had some angry days.)
The truth is, it doesn’t bother me when someone simply asks me how I am doing. The way I look at it is this … at least they took the time to ask. They are either asking because they genuinely care and they don’t know what else to say, or the question just popped out of their mouth by habit. No ill intent. After all, that’s what we do in today’s society. We are polite people and we pass each other on the street or in the hall and we say, “How’re you doing?” before we ever even register who we’re talking to. Polite conversation is ingrained in us (I’m Canadian), and so someone can hardly be blamed for letting that question slip out, even if it is somewhat redundant. I would rather be asked sincerely “How are you doing?” than I would be completely ignored. (That actually happened to me, by the way. Someone I worked with became very uncomfortable around me, and every single time I have seen her she will not make eye contact. She will find anything to look at other than my face when we pass in the hall, and often it’s the ceiling. One day I stopped and looked up to see if there was anything interesting on the roof that I was missing. A portal to Heaven perhaps? There was not. She probably just should have asked how I was doing.)
When I am the one addressing someone else who is experiencing loss I like to stick with “I’m sorry.” Nice and simple and to the point. I don’t believe there is any value in ignoring the elephant in the room, and the truth is … I AM sorry. It doesn’t matter whether or not I knew the person who died, or even if I didn’t know the person I’m talking to who lost their love. I’m just sorry. At the end of the day there really is nothing to say that is going to offer the bereaved any solace. No words, no matter how well intended, are going to ease that agonizing pain that rots your gut and twists your heart and leaves you gasping for air after the love of your life no longer exists. But ignoring a loss is the worst thing of all. Ignoring my loss tells me that Ben didn’t matter. And he did matter. He did matter. It is the silence that is intolerable, not the question “How are you?”
The other night I was sitting at Ben’s grave for a few minutes as I do most evenings. As I was leaving I walked through a different part of the cemetery and I saw a man from a distance, kneeling at a grave. As I got closer I could see that he was older, in his 70’s, and his shoulders were shaking as he cried. I averted my eyes and kept walking, telling myself that I didn’t want to embarrass him. Then I stopped and gave my head a shake. Embarrass him? Unless he murdered his own wife he surely doesn’t need to be embarrassed about crying over his beloved’s grave.
I turned around and walked right up to him. He stayed kneeling but looked up at me with tears in his eyes, obviously wondering what I wanted from him. I said, “I’m sorry.” You know what he said? He said “Thank you. This is my wife. This space next to her is for me. She was wonderful.” He just wanted to talk about his wife. Of course he did. I said, “I’m sure she was. I also lost my husband last year and I know it hurts.” Then I put my hand on his shoulder for a moment and left him with his thoughts. Behind me I heard him say, “Thank you.”
I will never again walk away from anyone I can see is grieving without saying something to them. Anything. Even if it’s “How are you?” It really doesn’t matter what you say. Saying anything lets a person know that you recognize they have lost their love, and that’s something worth recognizing. Say something.