“How are you?” It’s a simple question that can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances, never mind when in the grips of loss or other tragedy. Whether you hear it in the checkout line or from a dear friend, distilling your current experience into a simple answer can feel overwhelming and impossible. Knowing what else to say or ask can help us avoid the trap of asking those three habitual words that can spark anxiety and anger in those who are grieving. This isn’t to say that those who are grieving don’t want share about their experience or continue to connect with others. What it means is that crafting alternative ways to ask someone how they are doing can help ease the challenge inherent in answering that question.
So what to ask instead? It depends of course on your relationship with someone, but even with strangers, it can be helpful to inquire with something that departs from the norm. Rather than ask the person working at your local coffee shop, “How are you?” try out, “Anything out of the ordinary happen so far this morning?” or “What’s the most unusual drink you’ve made so far?” While families come to The Dougy Center knowing that it’s a place where people will make the time and space for them to truly answer the “How are you?” question, we know that having to answer it in passing, before they sit down for their actual group, can still feel distressing and confusing. That’s one of the reasons we train staff and volunteers to eschew “How are you?” when they greet children and families and say instead, “Nice to see you,” or notice something about what they are wearing, “Your boots are sparkly pink today!”
When you’re seeking to connect in a more profound way, there are a number of ways to invite people into conversations with more specific and possibly easier to tackle questions. Any question should of course be posed in a context of acceptance, and a willingness to be present with whatever is true for them, without fixing, dismissing, or minimizing their experience. Nothing shuts someone down quicker than hearing, “Oh, don’t feel that way,” “You need to focus on the positive,” or “Do you really think you should be going out and having fun at a time like this?” Instead, communicate that you are open and curious about the full spectrum of their grief. At The Dougy Center, we are working on a new Tipsheet entitled, “25 ways to ask a grieving person “How are you, really?” without asking “How are you, really?” which will be available soon on our website. In the meantime, here are a few sneak-preview options for connecting on a deeper level with someone who is grieving.
- Who or what did you want or need to avoid today?
- What is most on your mind?
- What do you wish your old self could tell you right now? What do you think your future self would tell you?
- What’s been your experience either with asking or answering, “How are you?” while grieving?
Visit our Facebook to share what else to ask (or not ask!).