“How are you?”

It is such a seemingly simple, benign question. Often, those who ask the question are not doing so out of real concern, but just as a polite, meaningless pleasantry. Just as often, those who answer the question would never think to respond with anything other than the implicitly expected “I’m fine” or “Good. How are you?” – even if everything wasn’t fine.

But what happens when the simple question of “How are you?” becomes a harsh reminder of the isolation felt by anyone struggling with overwhelming grief?  What happens when it becomes the silent signpost marking the moment when the newly bereaved seemingly take two simultaneous paths: the one visible to the outside world where everything appears to be “OK”, and the invisible path they silently follow, because the ongoing pain associated with it isn’t usually welcomed by society.

Recently, I spoke with a mother who had lost her son less than a month before. During our conversation, she mentioned several times that she was handling it well with the incredible support she received from her family, religion, and friends. But then she mentioned that recently, she could sense that when they asked her “How are you?,” the tone was beginning to change. She said the question was beginning to be asked in a way that sounded as though they were tiring of her pain and were ready for her response to return to the standard, “I’m fine.”

It reminded me of my return to work a month after the death of my daughter. While some people welcome the return to work in an effort to distract themselves from the pain, I returned only because I needed the income. I recall the first day back, I made a beeline to my desk, desperately avoiding eye contact with everyone. I dreaded the inevitable question, “How are you?”.

And yet, it came. While many people did their best to avoid me just as I avoided them, some did come to offer their condolences and sadly ask how I was. If I was being honest with them, my response may have sounded something like this:

How am I? I’m completely devastated. The skin around my eyes is raw and hurts from crying so much. Yes – even a month after her death…and there’s no sign of it stopping any time soon. I’m completely exhausted – physically and emotionally. It took all my energy to get out of bed this morning, much less get in the shower and then dressed and into the car to drive to work. On the drive it was hard to see through my tears. At some moments I felt like steering my car off the road and into a telephone pole, but thankfully I didn’t. In addition to a constant feeling of pain and nausea in my stomach, I’m angry when I look around and see that everything is “business as usual” around here and the world continues to march on without my daughter in it. The sound of laughter makes me want to scream. How could anyone be happy right now? I don’t care at all about my job or what needs to be done, but seeing as how I need the money, I’m just going to put my head down and immerse myself in work. Hopefully it will mean that for a few hours today I’ll be distracted from the overwhelming pain I feel. But every time someone comes up to ask me how I am, I’ll be dragged back to into reality and the nightmare I find myself in. So, while I appreciate that you care, I’d rather you not ask. Maybe you could just tell me you’re sorry, or even give me a silent hug…and then walk away. I simply don’t have the energy right now to pretend that I’m “fine”.

But, of course, I wasn’t honest. My answer depended on how the question was worded. If they asked, “How are you?,” I replied, “Fine”. If they asked, “How are you doing?,” I answered “I’m doing”. Both were spoken in a flat tone of voice that implied I was not fine, and intended to discourage them from continuing the conversation. This may sound mean, but it took a lot of energy to keep myself from bursting into tears and telling them how I really was when they asked me that question. Because if I really was “fine”, what would that say about how I felt about my daughter? It made me feel guilty and angry at the same time.

Over time, answering that question got easier and felt less of a betrayal to my daughter. Eventually, I could answer “I’m fine” or even “I’m good” and truly mean it. But it took time and a lot of work. It took going to support groups where I could give an honest answer of how I was doing and no one would try to stop me. Everyone there would understand and encourage me to let it out.

In the last four years, I’ve learned how to acknowledge and express my grief when I need to, rather than keeping it inside where it simmers and grows. I’ve learned to accept that I have both good and bad days, and over time, the good began to outnumber the bad. I’ve learned to not let the guilt and pain associated with the bad days keep me from enjoying and appreciating my life.

How am I doing now? Even though I still miss my daughter terribly, I’m good.

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Maria Kubitz

Maria Kubitz lost her four year old daughter in a drowning accident in 2009. In her grief journey, Maria continually tries to find ways to learn from the pain, and maintain a loving, healthy environment for her four other children. She volunteers as newsletter editor at a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, and in 2012, Maria created www.aliveinmemory.org – a blog about learning to live with grief.

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