How Are You?

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.”

 Or …

 “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.


Showing 9 reactions

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  • commented 2017-07-25 12:44:59 -0700
    I totally agree with you. I don’t care if it’s out simply politeness or just needing something to say, I appreciate being asked how I am. My simple answer is – I’m adjusting. No need to explain further because they already know I miss my husband to my very core yet they need the reassurance that I am not going to fall apart right in front of them and that I am doing the best I can to adjust to my new life. And when I meet someone I know has just lost a loved one, I ask them how they are doing because sometimes they just need to express their feelings and they I can appreciate how they feel as I am going through a recent loss myself. We need each and we need community – especially the community of people who understand.
    Love and hugs,
  • commented 2017-07-18 20:30:08 -0700
    Dear Wendy, thank you so much for taking your time to respond. You are wise. I feel heard and much less invisible!! Thanks again
  • commented 2017-07-18 13:41:18 -0700
    Carol … I’m so sorry to hear that you felt invisible. I think that’s probably one of the really great reasons to hook in with people who have walked the same path as you. I don’t believe that most people really intend to ignore the bereaved, I truly think they just do not comprehend how the pain lasts. This kind of pain and loss is nothing that can be explained to someone who hasn’t experienced, don’t you think?

    I think people generally feel that it would be good for the bereaved to “get over it” because they think it’s better for the person grieving. They think it would be better to “move on”, and they have no way of understanding that you will never get over it and you will never move on. You will work through it, you will move forward, but the loss will always be a huge part of your life.

    I have also met some people who have experienced this loss themselves, and their own way of coping really is to not discuss it and to try not to think about it. That’s ok too, except it gives the rest of the world this warped idea that people get over their loss. Maybe it contributes to this crazy illusion that people have that says we should grieve for a month, accept the situation and move on. Personally, that’s not really my style. I’m coping, I’m living, I’m even having some fun, but if I had to stifle my grief I think I’d just die.

    Anyway … I am terribly sorry for your loss. I think you should take every little moment you need to grieve exactly the way you need to. xo
  • commented 2017-07-18 12:13:01 -0700
    Thank god there are people like you who have a tender and compassionate heart. Only for a couple of months did people that knew my husband and I asked me how I was. I felt invisible!! Maybe I was too honest when they asked? Did I scare them. Did the pain on my face frighten them, god only knows it frightened me. Why does it seem that everyone including the speakers at my grief support group want to be so sure that we learn how to be resilient? I agree Wendy that the love of our life deserves to be mattered big time. They mattered, our loss of these wonderful men matters. The speaker mentioned not wallowing in our grief. That made me angry! I am not an angry person, but that comment offended me. Our love ones were and are precious to us! I figure for me being with my husband for fifty three years and he being gone only nine months and some of the widows only a few months out, could we please have some time here? I know it was not personal, but hurt anyway.
  • commented 2017-07-17 21:47:01 -0700
    Don … I sometimes actually want to respond, “As well as I can in a world without Ben.” I like “status quo” though. :) I may use that.
  • commented 2017-07-17 14:11:22 -0700
    I have three stock answers to the “How are you?” question.

    1-“Thats always a relative term for me”

    2-I answer with “How are YOU?”

    3-“Status quo”

    This way I don’t have to answer “Ok” or tell them how I REALLY feel.
  • commented 2017-07-17 10:37:56 -0700
    Likewise Wendy, it’s sad to know that there are many out there like you and I but in a strange way it’s also comforting to know that we are not alone.
  • commented 2017-07-17 07:53:56 -0700
    Thanks Joseph. I’m glad you spend time with your partner’s daughter’s, even though it reminds you of her. After all, what doesn’t remind you of her, right? She’s everywhere. I’m terribly sorry for your pain. Wendy
  • commented 2017-07-17 00:45:26 -0700
    Well said. Any kind of comfort is welcomed by the grieving. I had breakfast yesterday with my deceased partners daughters. When I’m with them it provides me comfort. But when we go on our different ways afterwards I ball my eyes out knowing if she was still here she’d be with me. That was a great gesture on your behalf to the older man. I’m sure it provided him great comfort. I know it would of for me.