It was her daughter’s birthday. The fifth one since she died. Many of the people she meet that day had no idea that this was a special day, how much every birthday hurt, and how certain birthdays hurt more than others. Fifth is really no different than fourth, but somehow it seems more significant. To her it felt like some kind of milestone had been reached. She could not believe it had been five years and yet, in some ways, it felt like it had been forever.
The friends, who knew what day it was, had no idea what to say or how to respond. The mother had no idea how she wanted or needed them to respond. We talked later about how the different responses felt. Which ones helped. Which ones hurt even though they came from friends who loved her, remembered and wanted to help.
When we talked later, she was amazed at how she responded and wanted to understand why she felt the way she did to some of the friend’s efforts. It seemed to bother her if they started with a question. “Are you OK?” or “How are you doing?” The tone of voice sounded like pity and the question made her feel defensive, like she had to explain her feelings and justify her pain. The one who helped her the most was a person who had become a friend after her daughter died and who had not suffered a close death in her own life, but just seem to know. She simply said, “Birthdays are hell,” hugged her and they cried together for a little while. There were no questions asked, no answers demanded, no justification expected, just a warm touch and an empathetic tear.
This brings up a question I hear over and over in conferences and seminars. “What do you say when people ask how are you doing?” Far too often it is evident they really don’t want to know and the question is the only thing they know to say. They ask but hope your response will be something like, “Just fine.” How are we suppose to respond?
There is no one answer to that question. I think each of us need several responses and the freedom to use the ones that seem to fit at the time. If the question is asked by someone we do not want to respond to, or in a setting that is not comfortable for us, or if we are just not in the mood to talk, then we have the right to just blow it off with some general response like, “I am doing as well as I can.”
If the question comes at a time when we are feeling like we need to talk, then it is appropriate to tell the person that you are not doing well at all. That will leave some standing with their mouths open and not knowing what to say next, but the real friends will not mind and the rest should just stop asking the question.
If it comes at a time when we need to blow off some steam, I think we should let it blow. Again, real friends will recover and love you any way, the opinion of the rest does not matter.
I do not think we should allow what someone else might think or feel to govern how we express our grief. That does not give us the right to shout it on main street, but we should not allow ourselves to stymie the grieving process to protect everyone else. To do so means we must hide our grief and swallow our anger and pain. Healthy grieving is never done in isolation.
The question then is “What do you say when people ask you how you are doing?” Taking the time to write how you respond may make the rest of us feel normal. Feel free to comment.
Copyright Doug Manning of In-Sight Books, Inc. Doug’s books, CDs and DVDs are available at www.insightbooks.com. Post originally published on Doug’s Blog at The Care Community www.thecarecommunity.com.
Updated: August 26, 2015