This one is a long one – buckle up!
- How Are You Doing?
It’s been common practice to list the “10 things you never say to the grieving/ill/surviving” …fill the in the struggle. It’s hit an off chord for me ever since I read my first one. In fact, it hit an off chord for me even as a grieving friend expressed it to me personally – even as I was a grieving myself. One of the biggest no, no’s that I hear over and over again is “Never ask, how are you doing?”
- Making a Trade
Let me start by saying. I’ve been there. I’ve been the one that doesn’t want to be asked how I’m doing. I’ve been through grief, I’ve lost, I’ve wanted to crawl deep down into a hole and lash out at anyone who dare enter. Each and every one of us has the right to ask for the things we need at any time. And that’s my point, each and every one of us. We can’t seek to control others while we are hurting.
I completely understand the impulse because when we are in such encompassing pain and a person approaches us and asks us how we’re doing we are faced once again with the reality of our situation, which seems bleak. No one wants to be reminded, no one wants to be there.
It seems impossible to expend the energy you don’t have to even try this approach, but I also want you to think about the energy we are using to feel the anger and resentment that may come up when people speak to us. Consider that we may just be trading one for the other.
- The Big Picture
I’m asking that we have some awareness of what we are really asking for. Do we really want people to stop inquiring about how you are doing? Would that be better? I can tell you from experience it’s not. It’s worse, it feels like your pain doesn’t matter, if feels like no one cares. And really when we’re in grief our attitudes change all the time. What’s right for us one moment isn’t right for us the next so wouldn’t open, honest, compassionate communication in the moment fulfill us the most?
- No One Wants to Hear Me
Now the next thing you might say to me is…”When I tell people how I’m really doing, it doesn’t help. They just get this sad look I dislike or they give me the silver lining phrases or they use some other method to avoid my pain and it hurts me more.” And here’s where the compassion comes in. I know it’s hard to think about compassion when we’re absorbed by our own pain but know that if we try, it can help us heal.
“Let’s tell the truth to people. When people ask, ‘How are you?’ have the nerve sometimes to answer truthfully. You must know, however, that people will start avoiding you because, they, too, have knees that pain them and heads that hurt and they don’t want to know about yours. But think of it this way: If people avoid you, you will have more time to meditate and do fine research on a cure for whatever truly afflicts you.” – Dr. Maya Angelou
- Gentle Communication
Not everyone who finds them selves with us and our pain will be ready for it. Some of them may be busy avoiding their own hurt, or they really had no idea what you were going through and no idea how to respond, or they simply get uncomfortable with deep emotions and need a way out.
Let them have the way out; give them the exit. Sometimes a fair response to someone we know is not ready to hear us is “fine”.
“Everyone in the world has gone to bed one night or another with fear, or pain, or loss, or disappointment – and yet each of us has awakened arisen, somehow made our ablutions, seen other human beings and said: ‘Morning, how are you?’ ‘Fine, thanks – and you?’.” – Dr. Maya Angelou
Even a brief explanation of “A bit tired, and you?”. There are a billion ways to respond that can be honest and gentle. Even if you’re so overcome with emotion that you tear up as soon as the question is asked, a simple “That question seems to make me cry right now.” is response enough.
My favorite response when I heard advice or observations that brought out negative feelings would be to look them in the eyes and earnestly say “Thank you for caring.” It helped to remind me why they were saying what they were so I could approach the rest of my thoughts from a better place.
This won’t be a perfect process; it requires some trial and error and plenty of patience with yourself and others. Realize that these people are not out to bring you more pain. In fact most of them only want to love you and help you.
- Release Control
The root of these always and never’s we try and place on people while we are in pain is a way to control or lessen the pain we are in. This doesn’t work. What it does end up doing is creating an even greater sense of separation and lack of communication, which will only hinder our healing process. We need to feel connected and understood to heal, so finding a safe way to open up is key. There is no avoiding the pain we have to go through while we grieve.
Going through it with love and support around us can be a tremendous help. It’s freeing to realize even if no one else can truly know our exact experience in this pain, all of us understand loss in some way and we can even learn if we traverse this difficult terrain by opening to what others have gone through.
- Build Your Community
If we commit ourselves to being aware we’ll begin to find those people who are able to walk with us on parts of our path. Notice I say parts, because only you can walk it all the way.
“And though we may find someone along the way who’s been where we are going or going where we have been, we must never stop breaking our own trail up the mountain. For only by daring to be ourselves can we deeply know others.” – Mark Nepo
Realize we are not alone, we are never alone but the only person we are truly in charge of is ourselves. Along the way, we can find a therapist that speaks our language. There will be the much needed moments of solitude. Then we might stumble over a friend that makes us laugh. Someone close might be able to pop in and out to help us answer the tougher questions. There maybe an older wiser figure in our life that has a story to share. And there are countless others online and in person that will just start to appear and lend the hand we need.
I am a recovering pleaser that was willing to change who I was for others and it served no one. Connecting with who I am is so important to me and has become a huge part of my healing. In the future when I’m asked to stop saying “How are you doing.” I hope I have the courage to respond with, “I understand why you wouldn’t want to respond to that question, but know that I only ask it because I care about you and really want to know.”
The words “How are you doing?” were never the enemy and erasing them was never the answer. Be open, release control, take it slow and let the transformation in.