Better Questions than “How Are you?” Part 1–Why

“How are you?” is almost impossible to answer if you’re newly bereaved (within 13 months of a loss).

When grief shakes your world, tips it end over end, and dumps it in the middle of life’s ten-lane freeway during rush hour, you find yourself smashed into  3.4 bazillion pieces (give or take a handful).

Even if you could yell “STOP!” and every commuter and freight driver pulled over to help gather the detritus that was your life Before… Even if magical glue could mend you more seamlessly than Humpty Dumpty… You’ve lost bits and pieces of yourself, blown away by the breezes of cleanup or embedded in the tires of already faraway cars.

So how would you reply to the question, “How are you?” while you’re still smeared and strewn and fragmented and incomplete?

Picture this:

I answer the doctor’s questions about my hubby’s medical history. Doctor utters impossible to comprehend, life-shattering words: “I’m sorry to inform you …”

Everything shifts.

Somehow my brain processes the meaning of the doctor’s ongoing words, though my ears hear only wuh-WUH-wuh-wuh vocalizations like adults in Charlie Brown TV specials. My vision zooms onto my daughter’s shocked face as I watch comprehension and disbelief drawing battle lines across her lovely, distorted features. In the same moment, as if I have more than one set of eyes, I notice the way light plays differently in the corners of the ceiling above and behind the doctor’s droning and I squint at the glare of his bald spot. Out of nowhere, a wrecking ball tugs from the base of my skull, its weighted chain confined within my spine, its globe of destruction swinging wildly through my abdomen. I am helpless to console my child, because this cannot be real and it cannot be undone–and how, oh how can I call her sisters 2,000 miles away to tell them–over the phone–they’ll never see their father again?  “So this is what it feels like,” the writer’s voice in my head intrudes, “when you lose your spouse.”

A bit of time passes. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? Impossible to say, but the doctor is still here, saying I don’t know what anymore.

In walks a hospital employee, portable phone in hand. (Soon I’ll learn he’s on the line with someone from the medical examiner’s office to question me.) As his eyes fix on mine, he says, “How’re you doin’?”

I admit my response was impolite.

(Part 2, Better Questions than “How Are You?” —  What to Ask When Grief Is New, will offer alternative questions that show you care.)

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