Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is “New”

For at least the first year after a death, avoid casually asking “How are you?” It’s too broad, and because it’s routinely used in place of “hello,” it can seem insincere.

Instead, ask one or two specific questions that acknowledge life has changed:

  • Are you remembering to breathe?
    If you’ve never been blindsided by grief, this may seem odd. (After all, who forgets to breathe?!) More than a month after my husband’s death, another widow first asked about my breathing. I thought the question strange–until I inhaled. All at once I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fully filled my lungs. The difference felt amazing, even luxurious! Still, over the next year, I found myself failing to do so again and again.
  • Do you need a drink of water? Are you drinking enough water?
    Your friend has shed incalculable streams of tears. You may (or may not) have witnessed them, but I guarantee more are shed unseen. Those tears, along with the other myriad physical and emotional stressors and distractions of grief, can lead to dehydration.
  • Can I make calls for you?
    Notifying others of my husband’s death was excruciating. It had to be done, but I  dreaded every personal and business call.
  • Would you like to talk?
    This helps, but be sure to listen! Your job is to L-I-S-T-E-N–not to evaluate, judge, or redirect. Let the conversation wander wherever your bereaved friend needs it to go.
  • Would you like to talk about [name the loss]?
    Grieving loved ones need to share feelings and memories about the deceased.
  • Can I bring you [name a specific food, whether homemade or take-out] at [#] o’clock on ___-day?
    Menu planning? Hah! I felt like a five-star chef if I managed to serve cold cereal or popcorn. Sometimes I forgot to eat or to stop eating. Grief disrupts digestion as ruthlessly as it sabotages sleep.
  • May I help you with [name a chore (*see below)]?
    Name one or two, because often the bereaved struggles to recall even simple tasks. I knew I wasn’t handling everything that needed doing, but I couldn’t figure out what was undone until someone offered to help with it. (I appreciated those thoughtful folks!)

    [*Consider offering to take on: errands, paperwork, transporting kids, yard work, washing the car, sweeping, laundry, polishing shoes, buying milk or fruit, house cleaning, etc.]

Questions like these show you care in practical ways. Even if the answer to all is “no,” your interest will be appreciated. (If your offers are rebuffed, please, please try again in a week or so. Consistency counts.)

If you’ve suffered such a loss, please add a comment sharing what helpful things others asked–and did–for you.

2 thoughts on “Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is “New”

  1. […] 2, Better Questions than “How Are You?” —  What to Ask When Grief Is New, will offer alternative questions that show you […]


  2. […] *Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 2–What to Ask When Grief Is New […]


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