How to Respond to “How Are You?”

A month or so ago, a Facebook friend, another woman who lost her mate, suggested I write a blog on what to say when people ask a griever, “How are you?” When I first realized that people were losing interest in my sad tale, I asked a bereavement counselor that very question. She said a good response is, “I’m coping,” which is the response I used for a few months. Now I just say, “I’m okay.” Even if I’m not okay, I tell people I’m okay. Or if I’m being polite, I say, “I’m fine, how are you?” There is nothing wrong with that — it’s a rote response to a rote question. Most people who ask how you are do not especially want to know. It’s an accepted conversation starter, a way for people to show token interest so they can move on to more exciting topics — themselves, for example.

Someone who comes back at you with, “No, really, how are you?” is someone who deserves no response at all, especially if they add, “this is me, remember?” If they need to remind you who they are, you don’t know them well enough to tell the truth. Besides, if you wanted to tell the person how you really were, you would have already done so.

People who truly care will ask a more specific question: “Did you sleep well,” for example, or  . . . I don’t know. Any question that shows genuine interest will suffice, and those you can respond to honestly if you wish. Or not. In the end, your grief is your business. People do not need to know you are still crying yourself to sleep every night, or that you miss him so much you can feel it like an ache in your bones, or that the world feels as if it’s aslant now that he is gone. Unless you want them to know, that is.

Even at the best of times, “How are you?” is a question without any response except “I’m fine,” or “I’m okay.” It always makes me wonder, “how am I in relation to what?” Are they asking about my health, my state of mind, my finances? With grief added into the equation, I wonder if they are asking how I am in relation to the way I was before he died, in relation to the way I felt immediately after his death, or in relation to nothing at all.

I have to admit, like everyone else, I usually ask the question, but as a part of the greeting, “Hi! How are you?” I don’t mind if someone comes back at me with, “I’m fine, how are you?” because that is the ritual. Once that is out of the way, we can settle down to a serious discussion. If the person is another griever, I don’t expect an in-depth response, I know how they are doing.

So, to recap a rather wordy and convoluted post, if someone asks how you are, “fine” is fine.

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8 Responses to “How to Respond to “How Are You?””

  1. Carol Ann Hoel Says:

    Pat, I believe you feel like you’ve been freshly mauled by a savage beast. My heart goes out to you. I remember the feeling, how it lingers in the recesses of your being, stalking you, waiting for the moment you’re alone; then it lunges full force, leaving your heart throbbing in pain. You wonder why your heart doesn’t stop beating.

    The distance between episodes of deep, life-threatening grief should increase as time passes, and the severity of the episodes, decrease.

    Try not to let it make you angry, Pat. If it makes you angry and the anger grows, it can impede your progress. I got angry. It was a deep seated anger that kept silence. The very day I turned to God and told him I was laying down the anger and thanked him for whatever else he had for me in my life, everything changed. Swiftly. It seemed as though the angels in heaven burst out in joyful song for me that moment. My new life began that day.

    Blessings to you, and may your heart heal completely; may the warm sun of a new horizon appear for you sooner than you think…

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Mauled is a good way of putting it. I do have days where I don’t hurt as much, and I don’t think I’m angry. Who is there to be angry at? Not him, that’s for sure — it wasn’t his fault. He took very good care of himself. But I could be deluding myself. Other friends have told me about their anger, and I don’t want that for me, and I know my mate wouldn’t. (Though he also counseled to keep a pilot light of anger to fuel my determination.)

      • Carol Ann Hoel Says:

        I’m glad you’re not angry. I think you’d know. I was angry at God, but I didn’t know it right away. I wasn’t angry at my mate. He was a great husband. (Pilot light of anger to fuel determination… interesting idea. My hubby had a little motto: Don’t complain; don’t explain.)

  2. Holly Bonville Says:

    It’s interesting, before, when asked that question, I never thought twice about it. But now when asked “how are you”, there is a whole dialog that goes through my head before I answer that I am fine. Adjusting is another word I use. It is like I run through all the words and sift out the ones that don’t apply to that person or situation. Do they really care, or, as you say, just breaking the ice.
    I have my bad days and my not so bad days. And then days that are all bad, and several days in a row that are all not so bad.
    I’m about a month “ahead” of you in this process, but everything you write is right on the money.
    Thank you.

  3. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Love the “fine” picture you chose for this. And I like your answer, that your listener will talk or walk away either way, so Fine really is fine.

  4. Carol J. Garvin Says:

    While I was battling with cancer I found I approached people with a different greeting. A “Hi, nice to see you” replaced my usual “Hi, how are you?” I didn’t want to answer questions, so I didn’t ask any. Rote greetings are changing (the automatic handshake disappeared last winter during the H1N1 scare) but some will probably always be around. I think people mean well… they don’t intend to put us on the spot… but just don’t understand how the intense emotions of an ill or grieving person respond to the unintentional inquisition. So I agree, sometimes “fine” is just fine.


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