I hate it when someone asks me, “how are you?” Actually, I don’t really mind the question when someone I don’t know asks. I recognize it for what it is - conversational fluff. Most of the time it’s asked in passing and no one is really listening to the answer. We never expect an honest response, because to really delve into the question requires time and space. The time to hear the nuances of someone’s life that led them to be in the state they’re in, and the space to feel safe to disclose personal details.
I don’t like it when people I know ask me, “how are you?” The question has taken on new meaning since my sister died. I can’t begin to answer and so I usually don’t. I can be open to talking about the complexity of my feelings, but sometimes I’m not. Usually my openness to sharing depends on the present company and whether I feel comfortable crying in that physical space. There are few social situations away from the privacy of my home where I feel comfortable crying, which means that when I’m out in public, I usually can’t get into it. To answer with the typical good, fine or ok feels like a slap to my sister’s face. I don’t like having to lie to make it through an awkward social encounter - she deserves more than that.
The question also feels loaded. I get the impression that people really want me to be ok, and to admit that I’m less than ok would be a disappointment. They want me to be ok so that they can feel the freedom to return to the typical nuances of our relationship. But, grief is messy, which is why so many of us don’t want anything to do with someone else’s grief in the first place. It’s the unsolvable problem, and it’s hard to be around someone who is really hurting. To tell people the truth to their ‘how are you?’ question would be an invitation to my constant heartache. The pain oscillates from dull throbbing to sharp stabs. When I begin to think of the enormity of my loss, I feel a deep chasm in my chest and I am lost in what it really means for my sister’s life to have been cut short by 50 years.
Susan Silk created the Ring Theory to help people know what to say and to whom in a crisis. Draw rings around a center circle. The epicenter is the afflicted, in the case of injury or illness, or the bereaved in the case of a death. From there, each concentric ring describes the people who are next most affected. Once you’ve established your circles you follow the rule of always providing support inward, and seeking support outward. I’ve recreated the original image with some minor changes from the article linked above.
In thinking about the Ring Theory (crude image above), I'm finding that I can’t answer the how are you question for anyone within the inner ring (my immediate family and my sister’s immediate family). I am often asked how my mother is doing. If they know her, I generally think that it’s best that they check in with her themselves because I know she’d appreciate it. But any attempt to answer that question leaves me searching for words. People feel pretty uncomfortable when I respond with, “How do you think my mom/sister’s husband/brother is doing?” I get it, it’s kind of rude. I am comfortable sharing how people in the outer rings are doing (extended family, friends). But please don’t ask me how my family or my sister’s husband are doing. Imagine how you would feel - that’s how they are doing.
But there are changes to be made, a small habit shift, that communicates volumes beyond the four words of the revised question.
How are you today?
The addition of one little word totally transforms this phrase from one of annoyance to one of gratitude. My biggest thank you to Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in Option B is that they are helping to make ‘how are you today?’ mainstream. Adding the ‘today’ to the question sends the message to someone who is hurting that you know that their life is moment to moment. When I am asked, “How are you today?” I can answer, “Today is a good day,” without feeling like I am telling people that I’m over my sister’s death. Or I can feel free to say, “I’m having a hard day. I was watching a clip of my daughter and nephew from last summer and I unexpectedly heard my sister’s voice in the final seconds of the video.”
There seem to be two camps of people when it comes to grief books - those who love books about resilience and those who do not. I am the later, and so I appreciated the messages in Option B.
Some days are terrible. Some days are ok. We would all do a service to each other if we rephrase the most commonly asked question. This isn’t just beneficial for the bereaved or those who are ill. I can’t think of a situation where anyone wouldn’t appreciate a more conscientious approach to this common pleasantry, even if it's asked between neighbors in passing.
Switching from how are you to how are you today takes extra thought, and it’s something that I’m not even close to mastering. After writing the first draft of this post I went to my bimonthly grief group. I was talking to a father whose teenage daughter recently died in an accident. I asked him, “how are your other children?” And then immediately apologized (well - I tried to, but someone else came by to say hi so I awkwardly addressed it 10 minutes later.) How could I expect him to answer that. I rephrased it and said, “because I’ve also lost a sister I am thinking about your kids and how they’re doing after their sister’s death.” At my next meeting, a woman who I hadn’t seen since November sat next to me and I asked, “how are you?” She responded, “I am.” Even though this topic has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks, I am so programmed to ask “How are you?”
The preachers don’t always practice what they preach, but I sure am trying.