Monday, October 28, 2013

In Grief: Responding to "How Are You?"

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Please see me through my tears.  ~ Fernando Alvarez

A reader writes: I work in a hospital and worked with hospice long ago but now I am on the other side of the fence. It is so very hard. Currently my partner is a patient in the hospital where I work. We are trying to gain control of his pain. The hardest part is not being able to fix this. I am pretty good at fixing things but I can't fix this. He is only 39. I know people much younger have suffered....but he's only 39. People always ask, how are you doing? I really dislike that question. Most of the time I say fine...but that is a lie. Now I say "I say I'm fine but, you know." I just really wish people wouldn't ask...it breaks my heart...and as I say, this is my hospital, so I know they truly care.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn about your partner's serious illness, but glad to know that you are surrounded by supportive, caring people. Unfortunately, as you have observed, no matter how caring they may be, oftentimes friends and co-workers really don’t know what to say, so they say whatever words first come to mind ~ and “How are you?” seems to be the most commonly used phrase. The problem is that, in our culture at least, “Fine” is the most commonly used response to that question, but when we’re feeling anything but fine, such an answer seems phony and dishonest ~ especially if we think the person asking the question really does care about us and is sincere in seeking an honest answer. Still, for whatever reason, we may not want to go into detail with how we really feel at the moment. So what is the best way to respond?

This question comes up often in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups. I'd like to share with you some of the suggestions offered by other mourners:

If you don't want to wear a mask and say "fine," maybe offer just a simple glimpse of the truth, like "it's hard..." or something to that effect.

Yes, when people ask how are you it's like someone flipped a switch. I feel like howling and wailing in response...but I do my best to hold it in, tear up, face turns red, eyes get bloodshot and I say, "Ok, but, you know." I think at this time i would rather hear statements. Like, "I am here for you. I am praying for you, remember to take care of you."...I don’t want to have to respond or the cry switch comes on. But I do want to know they are there.

You should not start faking it because that will make you ill probably ... To some people (that are just acquaintances) I say "Fine, thanks" and to those who know me well and I assume really do want to know, "Well, I still don't want to be here, I want to be with him ... but I am slowly learning to live without him.”

I call these people the "untouched" because they don't know and they don't get "it." This may sound arrogant, but one day you will be this person's teacher. One day she will get it because she will be consumed by the tsunami of grief, and when that day comes you will be a breath of fresh air to her, because you will be the person who does understand.

This is your grief, you are allowed to feel it, and no one, no one, no one can tell you otherwise. They don't mean to be horrible, they just don't know what we go through, that's all. If you think it wouldn't insult your friends, maybe print off some articles [see examples below] on this topic and let them read them?

I think we all "fake" it to a certain extent. That's why this site is such a Godsend, because we don't have to fake it here. It is a safe place to say whatever we want, whenever we want. I find that I don't look people in the eye any more when I talk with them. I think it is because I'm afraid they'll see my sadness and say something and either make me mad or sad.

[My deceased husband’s] family deals with EVERYTHING by hiding their heads in the sand. If they don't see it, it didn't happen so why are "you" being such a big baby. I was told we all deal with grief differently which is true, but I'm expected to accept how they grieve, but they don't have to accept me. Well, they don't have to worry about that anymore because basically I don't really care what they think. I will feel the way I want to when I want to.

I find myself faking it sometimes and I hate that but I do it cuz I just don't want to talk about it, so I figure if I say I'm ok then it doesn't get brought up. Those people really are the untouched. They have no idea, no clue, not even a pinch. I always get the question "How you doing?" from people with the look of total pity and it’s like ok seriously do you really want to know or just want me to say something. Cuz really I could go on and on about how I'm doing and they wouldn't care. But I'm sick of the question.

My daughter calls me after work sometimes and just falls apart on the phone. She tells me "I just miss Dad so much" and I hear such incredible sadness in her voice, such deep loss. But then I am like that too, feeling the pain. My son feels the loss too, but handles it in such a different way. Instead of talking about his dad so much, he tries to emulate his dad by watching out over me. He is very attentive. Sometimes I fall apart around him crying and he comes and sits next to me and puts his arms around me and just holds me. He doesn't say anything, he just loves me.

Lots of people are not good with words and just do not know what to say or how to comfort. But if you have even a few friends who can listen to you speak honestly about your feelings and your deep loss that is a blessing. When we needed people the most they avoided us for fear of saying the wrong thing. That hurt more than hearing their "bad things to say to a grieving person". This time around, I've made a point of letting people know that just being there for us is what we need. To hug us or cry with us just like your friends are doing but the avoidance makes us feel like we have a disease or something. We actually stopped going places so we wouldn't make everyone uncomfortable. The whole reason I decided to join this forum was to have a place where people understand what I'm going through and I can share and be myself without upsetting my family, who are all grieving in their own way. This valley is yours and no one can walk the path before you but you. Just be yourself and draw from the support that you DO have.

Generally, when people ask me how I am, if they are aware of our situation, I am honest - usually it is, "As well as can be expected, I guess. Some days are better than others, some days worse." I don't need to expand on that, but depending on the person, I may. I certainly get the looks of pity / sadness, but I don't suppose I can expect much less. At least it is an acknowledgement.

For people I don't know and don't know me my response is "I've been better." Nobody delves any further and I don't have to lie. For people who are acquaintances I'll respond with "I'm really struggling" or "I'm very fragile right now". With people who really care I will be totally open and honest but I am also working with them to rephrase the rote "How are you?" to "How are you doing today?" That helps them to understand that just because I could talk yesterday without sobbing hysterically does not mean that I'll be able to today.

Perhaps others need to walk a mile in our shoes before they are qualified to pass judgment on how we are doing. By way of explanation, you might ask them to read this:

Please See Me Through My Tears

You asked, 'How are you doing?' As I tell you, tears came to my eyes….
And you looked away and quickly began to talk again.
All the attention you had given drained away.
'How am I doing?'
I do better when people listen, though I may shed a tear or two.
This pain is indescribable. I need you.
When you look away, when I am ignored, I am again alone with it.
Your attention means more than you can ever know.
Really, tears are not a bad sign, you know!
They're nature's way of helping me heal….
They relieve some of the stress of the sadness sometimes.
I know you fear that asking how I'm doing brings me sadness
…..but you're wrong.
Her memory will always be with me, only a thought away.
My tears make the pain more visible to you, but you did not
Give me the pain…. It was already there
When I feel your permission to allow my tears to flow,
You've helped me. You need not speak. Your silence as I cry is all I need.
Be patient …. Do not fear
Listening with your heart to 'how I am doing'
Relieves the pain, for when the tears can freely come and go
I feel a tiny bit lighter. Talking to you releases
What I've been wanting to say aloud,
Clearing space for a small touch of joy in my life.
I'll cry for a minute or two…. and then I'll wipe my eyes.
And sometimes you'll even find I'm laughing later.
When I hold back the tears, my throat grows tight,
My chest aches, my stomach knots…..
Because I'm trying to protect you from my tears.
Then we both hurt….me, because my pain is held inside,
A shield against our closeness… and you,
Because suddenly we're distant.
So, please, take my hand and see me
Through my tears….
And we can be close again.

~ Fernando Alvarez

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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC


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