“How are you?” is such a common question we ask it automatically. After four loved ones died – my daughter (mother of our twin grandkids) father-in-law, brother, and the twin’s father -- I was asked this question many times. The twins parents died in separate car crashes and the court appointed my husband and me as their guardians. Suddenly, I was responsible for two fifteen-year-old, vulnerable, profoundly sad children.
Life had changed so quickly, so drastically, I could hardly keep track of it.
My feelings bounced around wildly. Some days I was certain I could cope and create a future. On other days my confidence disappeared I felt lost in the darkness. Certainly, I wasn’t up to social contacts or functions. But the story of my multiple losses had spread around town with race car speed. Family members, friends, and strangers would ask, “How are you?” The question bothered me so much I wrote answers to it.
Seven years have passed and I now realize I don’t have to answer the question. I can simply say, “I don’t know.” This answer has several advantages.
One, you are being honest. Grief is confusing, stressful, and saps your energy. Your mind is processing lots of details and you need time to do this. As Vamik d. Volkan, MD and Elizabeth Zintl explain in Life After Loss: The Lessons of Grief, “We want to move on, to have the pain disappear, and to reimmerse ourselves in life. Yet the emotional presence of the lost person is still banging around in our heads . . .” So don’t feel guilty about not knowing how you’re doing. You are normal.
Two, you aren’t required to share feelings. Granger E. Westberg, author of Good Grief, thinks some people don’t like to express their emotions. “They do not need or want anyone ‘meddling’ in their lives by trying to help them through their grief,” he writes. Saying you don’t know how you are feeling is a way of avoiding this “meddling” and helps you guard your feelings. Besides, telling your story over and over again is exhausting.
Three, you may end painful conversations. Many people don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving, so they share their own grief experiences instead. These accounts can be long, rambling, detailed and even gory. I heard too many sad stories in the grocery store, stories I didn’t need to hear because I had enough sad stories of my own. To end the conversations I’d look at my watch say, “Sorry, I’m late for a medical appointment.” Today, I would avoid these conversations altogether. When asked how I was doing, I would say I didn’t know, and change the subject.
Still, the old watch trick comes in handy every now and then. People are trying to be kind when they ask how you’re doing, but you don’t have to answer this question. You may smile, say “I don’t know,” thank them for caring, and go on your way.