One of the most dreaded questions for people who are grieving is, “How are you doing?”
Where does one even begin to answer that question after a loss?
There seems to be a perception that if we are not puddles in a heap on the floor, soaking in a pool of our own tears, we must be “okay.” If we are going to work and maintaining a household, we may even be considered to be “doing well.” If we are taking care of other people and putting one foot in front of the other each day, others might tell us how “strong” we are, or how much they admire us.
But none of that really rings true when we are grieving, does it?
We want to say,
“I’m not okay. I lost someone I love and my entire world has been turned upside down.
Somehow I am functioning. I don’t understand how or why, but I can manage most of life despite this grief. And yet, I am not at all “okay”.”
We aren’t necessarily seeking pity, but we do want people to know the reality of our experience. If we can’t share the truth of our experience, then we can’t fully be known. We become alienated. That’s a lonely place to be.
So how do we respond when faced with that question?
I think it depends on whether the question comes from someone who sincerely wants to know how you are doing, or from someone who is making obligatory small talk. If the latter, a simple, “I’m hanging in there,” might be insincere, but is less damaging than baring your soul to someone who is not truly willing or prepared to support you.
If the question is posed by someone who cares about you and has historically been trustworthy to hold your feelings, an honest answer can feel like a huge relief. Sharing how you are really doing will allow you to “vent” a bit of those emotions and will allow the other to provide support. Your response could facilitate a helpful discourse that leads to increased connection between you and another; connection is a crucial part of grief recovery.
That said, sometimes when faced with the question, “How are you doing?” our mind goes blank or we default to our kneejerk responses like, “Oh, I’m hanging in there.” It’s not what we want to say; it’s just sort of what came out.
It can be really helpful to have a script for some potential responses. I find that most people resonate with one or two of the suggestions below. When they hear them, they say, “That is perfect! I need to remember that.” When they respond with them, they tell me that it felt liberating to be honest. Read through the potential responses below and adapt them to your own experience and style of speech.
Some possible responses:
“I am managing things, but I feel like I am living in a nightmare.”
“Honestly, when I am with people I can hold it together, but I am devastated.”
“I don’t know. Some moments I feel okay, but when it hits me, I feel like I could just fall over and never get up.”
“Everything is ten times harder now. This is brutal.”
“I’m grateful to have so much support, but it still feels like I can’t possibly survive this.”
“Somehow I am functioning, but I feel like I am just going through the motions.”
“Every moment is a struggle. I feel like I could just fall apart.”
Be careful not to tack on a statement meant to comfort the asker like, “…but I will be okay!” Your pain is uncomfortable, even to someone who is asking how you are, but easing the discomfort of the asker ultimately disconnects you. Hopefully the next time someone asks you how you’re doing, you can respond in a way that supports your grief recovery instead of alienating you. I would love to hear what has worked for you!