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, an expression of interest in how another person is feeling, is coping, is going (as the Aussies say). But most of the time, we answer the question honestly at our peril, only to find that the other person is just being polite and doesn’t really want to hear anything other than some version of “I’m fine.”
Most grievers hate this question because it requires assessing the other person’s interest level and our own mental state at a time when our thoughts are whirling, our emotions are up and down and all around, and our brains aren’t processing well. We can usually tell when the other person doesn’t want a real answer, yet it can feel dishonest to pretend we’re okay when we’re feeling broken. But even when someone really wants to know, we may realize that we lack the energy to manage their response to our truth.
And yet I’m grateful when someone makes the effort. I don’t agree with Sheryl Sandberg that the question lacks empathy or that adding the word “today” at the end (as in “How are you today?) makes that much difference. Most people are trying to be supportive. And is the question “How are you today?” really that much easier to answer, especially in the jagged early years of loss?
When I choose to answer honestly , what matters is what the other person does with the answer. Do they clear their throat and change the subject? Look uncomfortable and sorry that they asked in the first place? Try to demonstrate that they understanding what I’m going through by sharing a story about one of their losses? 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 other days when I have been stunned by another person’s story about a loss so huge or unfair that all I can do is stammer.
I’m no better now at coming up with the “right” or perfect response than I was before Jimmy died. But I am better able to sit with another person’s pain. I’ve learned after lots and lots of mistaken attempts 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 how grief has unfolded for me is almost always either irrelevant, unhelpful or both.
When we are immersed in sadness, we forget that the rest of the world may not understand or even 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 ability to listen. Their willingness to set aside anything else they needed to do. Their commitment to refrain from sugarcoating and acknowledge how devastating my son’s death is, the way it has shattered my life.
Profound loss can be a gift in certain ways. It opens your eyes to how many other people are suffering, and it creates a deep connection with those other grievers. A kinship, a sisterhood. A friendship that forms over what matters most. 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 in the words along with the pain. Recognize the courage it takes to share the devastation, the fear, the loneliness. Hear the pain in the other person’s voice. Notice the healing that comes from listening instead of trying to talk. And no matter what, don’t look away.