The person checking you out at the grocery store, the neighbors you barely know when they pass you on the street, the person handing out the bulletins when you enter church – all say casually, “How are you?” or “How are you doing?” as easily and frequently as they say hello. When and how did this become the new normal for greeting in our society? The problem for me and other grieving parents, siblings and grandparents is: How do you answer that question to someone who really doesn’t want to know how you’re doing? Also, you may not know them well enough to want to give them an honest answer or are not in a situation to give an honest response.
This simple question has raised an ongoing dilemma for me and for most of the bereaved people I have worked with over the last 35 years. In the groups I have facilitated, we have struggled with how to respond. Of course, there are the responses we would LIKE to give such as: “My son was killed in an accident last month. How do you think I’m doing?” – “I’m doing terrible right now.” – “If you have a half hour to sit down with me and listen, I will give you an honest answer.” – “I don’t think you want an honest answer to that question.” Instead, we try to be more polite. A few of the parents have shared responses the groups liked and felt would be more acceptable such as: “I’m doing as good as can be expected.” and “Not so good right now.” or “Just doing the best I can.” My way to protest this inane question is to simply not respond when I am having a hard day with my grief. I then change the topic.
We all hate being dishonest and saying, “fine” or “good” even though that is the easiest way out. I think we should start a petition to ban the misuse of this question as a greeting. We could probably get thousands of signatures. I need to admit though that even I have slipped at times and said, “How are you?” as part of a greeting. As soon as I say those words, I want to slap my mouth! Perhaps we should come up with big buttons to wear that say, “Please don’t ask me how I am doing.”
Of course, there are times when it is very appropriate to ask someone you know and care about how they are doing, but that is only when you are in a private setting and have the time to hear an honest answer. Even then, it is better to phrase it a little different. “How are you coping at this time?” or “I know this is a hard time for you, but I really do want to know how you are doing.” or “On this roller coaster of grief, how is today treating you?”
The next important thing to remember is that when you get an answer, you should avoid trying to come up with something to make the person “feel better”. There is nothing magical or profound to say to make everything okay for the grieving parent and you are more likely to say something that is at minimum, irritating, or worse, offensive.
Of course, with The Compassionate Friends audience, I am preaching to the choir, but you may want to share this with friends and relatives and raise awareness – or start the petition!
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