How are you?
It’s such an American thing to say. We don’t even mean it most of the time. Usually you could replace the phrase with a simple “hello” and no one would care.
But when your person dies and you see someone for the first time, “How are you?” becomes “How are you?”
It’s not a bad thing. It’s just…I don’t know….another thing that’s hard. Because now when people ask me, they have pity in their eyes. They don’t just mean hello. They mean, “How are you dealing with your husband’s death? Are you sleeping? Do you miss Vance all the time? Are you okay? Are you going to cry right now? Right here in the grocery store? Because I don’t know if I can handle that. Oh, geez, maybe I should go ahead and change the subject now.“
And my response can’t just be “fine.” Because I’m not fine. SometimesI’ve been crying in the car before working up the courage to come inside. Or my grief has manifested itself in anger and I blew up at my kids or maybe I just dealt with them not knowing how to deal with their own grief and I feel like a failure of a mother. But I don’t really want to say any of that. Because do they really want to hear it?
Or maybe I am fine. Maybe for just a few minutes I’ve managed to forget that Vance is dead and that I’m now a widow; that my kids don’t have a dad. Maybe I’m just thinking about getting bananas or gasoline or picking up the mail. But if I say that, do I come off as calloused? Does it mean I don’t love him enough? Will people judge me for being “good” in what they think is too soon?
So mostly I just shrug my shoulders and say something like, “About like you’d expect.” Because that’s the truth. Sometimes I’m far from okay and other times I see the light at the end of the tunnel and think we are going to make it through to the other side.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask a grieving person how they are. In fact, you should ask. But only if you’re sincere in wanting to know. And know that the real answer to that question is a very complex one. Just thinking about it might be enough to bring tears. Be ready for that. Be ready to listen. Be ready for a hug. And be ready for me to give you my best, toughest smile and lie to you saying, “fine, thanks for asking.”