How to Respond to “How Are You?”

A month or so ago, a Facebook friend, another woman who lost her mate, suggested I write a blog on what to say when people ask a griever, “How are you?” When I first realized that people were losing interest in my sad tale, I asked a bereavement counselor that very question. She said a good response is, “I’m coping,” which is the response I used for a few months. Now I just say, “I’m okay.” Even if I’m not okay, I tell people I’m okay. Or if I’m being polite, I say, “I’m fine, how are you?” There is nothing wrong with that — it’s a rote response to a rote question. Most people who ask how you are do not especially want to know. It’s an accepted conversation starter, a way for people to show token interest so they can move on to more exciting topics — themselves, for example.

Someone who comes back at you with, “No, really, how are you?” is someone who deserves no response at all, especially if they add, “this is me, remember?” If they need to remind you who they are, you don’t know them well enough to tell the truth. Besides, if you wanted to tell the person how you really were, you would have already done so.

People who truly care will ask a more specific question: “Did you sleep well,” for example, or  . . . I don’t know. Any question that shows genuine interest will suffice, and those you can respond to honestly if you wish. Or not. In the end, your grief is your business. People do not need to know you are still crying yourself to sleep every night, or that you miss him so much you can feel it like an ache in your bones, or that the world feels as if it’s aslant now that he is gone. Unless you want them to know, that is.

Even at the best of times, “How are you?” is a question without any response except “I’m fine,” or “I’m okay.” It always makes me wonder, “how am I in relation to what?” Are they asking about my health, my state of mind, my finances? With grief added into the equation, I wonder if they are asking how I am in relation to the way I was before he died, in relation to the way I felt immediately after his death, or in relation to nothing at all.

I have to admit, like everyone else, I usually ask the question, but as a part of the greeting, “Hi! How are you?” I don’t mind if someone comes back at me with, “I’m fine, how are you?” because that is the ritual. Once that is out of the way, we can settle down to a serious discussion. If the person is another griever, I don’t expect an in-depth response, I know how they are doing.

So, to recap a rather wordy and convoluted post, if someone asks how you are, “fine” is fine.