If you see somebody that’s hurting, don’t look away. And if you’re hurting, even though it might be hard, try to find that bravery within yourself to dive deep and go tell somebody. Lady Gaga
“How are you?” should be an invitation, a desire to know how another person is feeling, is coping, is going (as the Aussies say). But answer it honestly at your peril, as you may find the other person is only being polite and doesn’t really want to hear anything other than “I’m fine”.
Many grieving souls hate this question because it requires figuring out the best way to answer it at a time when your emotions are up and down and all around, and your brain isn’t working right. We can usually tell when the person asking the question doesn’t want a real answer, and yet it feels dishonest to pretend that we are okay when we’re feeling broken inside. Others who ask genuinely want to know but we lack the energy or brain function to give a coherent answer.
I don’t agree with Sheryl Sandberg that the question lacks empathy nor that adding the word “today” at the end (as in “How are you today?) makes a difference. Until Jimmy was dying and then died, I didn’t truly understand how hard the question could be to answer. And I am sure that I was guilty of asking it purely as a pleasantry, not expecting a meaningful response.
For me, what matters is what the other person does with the answer. Does she lean in or out? Does he clear his throat and change the subject? Or just merely look uncomfortable and sorry that she asked? There’s no shame in any of these responses. There have been so many days when I wouldn’t have known what to say to me either. And even more days when I have been silenced by another griever’s story about a loss so huge or so unfair that I know nothing I say will make it better or ease his pain.
It is the brave, shining souls that I have met through Salt Water who taught me that “I’m sorry”, an invitation to say more or silence are often the best response to someone else’s grief. I’m no better now at coming up with the “right” or perfect response than I was before Jimmy died. But I am more able to sit with another person’s pain. I understand that my presence and my willingness to witness that pain is healing in a way that words often aren’t. That the other person is the one who needs and wants to talk. And that interjecting my experience or what was or is true for me is often either irrelevant or unhelpful or both.
When we are immersed in sadness, we forget that the rest of the world may not understand or know what we’re going through. At some point, I stopped caring about the people who didn’t really want to know how I was and started focusing on those who did. Their bravery in asking. Their willingness to listen. Their disregard for anything else they needed to do. Their commitment to seeing and acknowledging how devastating a death can be and the way it can shatter a person’s life.
Profound loss can be a gift in many ways. It opens your eyes to how many other people are suffering, and it provides a deep connection to those other grievers. A kinship, a sisterhood. A friendship that forms quickly over what matters in life. An understanding that’s hard to explain and probably makes no sense to someone who hasn’t lost one of their most important people.
Everyone has a story. Chose the ones you want to hear, and then listen carefully. Breathe the words in along with the pain. Feel the courage it takes to share the devastation, the fear, the loneliness. Hear the pain in the other person’s voice. Watch the healing that comes from your silence, your attention, your caring. And no matter what, don’t look away.