“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” ~W. Edwards Deming
“How are you?”
A common greeting among family, friends, acquaintances. On most days, a response that requires little to no thought. It’s reflexive, automatic. Sometimes, meaningless.
“I’m fine. How are you?”
On occasion, the response might vary slightly, depending on circumstances as well as who is inquiring.
“I’m a bit tired.”
“I’m not feeling well.”
Regardless, it’s a pretty basic question not requiring—or typically expecting—an in-depth response.
There are times in our lives, however, when the question, “How are you?” renders us speechless. When responding with, “Fine” is not only a blatant lie, it is simply impossible to utter. When it causes you to catch your breath, stare wordlessly at the questioner, almost imperceptively shrug your shoulders, and be at a loss for words.
I’ve never been a fan of this greeting. It feels contrived, expected, robotic. Recently, however, I’ve come to dread this question.
My dad died on January 7th. And now, still, over a month later, I continue to avoid phone calls and potential encounters with neighbors. I do not want anyone to ask me how I am.
I know they genuinely care. I believe they are asking because they truly want to know. But, I have no answer. At least not one that I can honestly share with most people. It’s too much. The reality of my current truth, the physical and emotional pain the death of my dad causes me, is not something that I am capable of sharing with everyone that asks me how I am.
I don’t know how to answer the question, “How are you?” I don’t want anyone to ask me. I don’t want anyone to ask me because I will either feel the need to lie or will simply not know how to respond, creating a situation that I am in no way currently capable of navigating.
I spoke with a longtime friend today for the first time since my dad’s death. We talked matter-of-factly of the preparations that come with preparing a funeral service, cleaning out and readying a home to sell, and all of the other unavoidable tasks that still lay before us. We spoke of my current job status, my children, and her family. As we ended the conversation, she commented on how good I sounded, how it seemed as if I was doing quite well.
After I hung up, I cried. I cried because I had just spent 30 minutes on a phone call during which, if you only listened to my voice, I did sound fine. I cried because a friend that I’ve known for over 20 years could not hear the pain behind my words, the anguish in the reciting of my to-do list. I cried because I am so far from fine that I do not even know the word to describe what I am.
I wasn’t angry with her—she took in what she heard over the almost 1,000 miles that separate us. I believe her need to tell me that I sounded “good” was likely a gesture of support. What else can a person do? There are no words to be spoken that can ease my pain. I’ve been on the other side—I know the feeling of helplessness that comes with the pain a close friend or relative is experiencing and the fact that there are no actions, no words, that can possibly ease that pain.
I’ve had friends text me every single day since my dad’s death. Not expecting a response, a phone call. Just needing me to know they were thinking of me. I’ve had friends that do not call or text as often, and I know it’s because they do not know how to deal with situations that are uncomfortable and require silence and listening and hearing and understanding, even when no words are spoken.
I say I don’t want anyone to ask me how I am. But that’s not really the truth. I guess I do want you to ask. But, I want you to actually want to hear the truth. To be able to hear the truth. And I also want you to be okay when I do not have an answer. I want you to know that, if I sit in silence staring at you, it’s because I don’t have the words. And I need that to be okay. I want you to know that, while I can chat about life and my kids and my job and responsibilities, that is in no way an indication of how I am doing. I’m doing what I have to do to function.
I’ve asked the question, “How are you?” of friends and acquaintances countless times, truly wanting to know the answer. I now look back and wish I had asked a different question.
I wonder how many times someone responded with, “Fine” because they had no idea what to say. I wonder how many times someone wanted to shrug and say, “I don’t know” but didn’t because it’s uncomfortable. I wonder how many times I could have said something differently, something that would cause the other person to be able to shrug and say, “I don’t know,” and then we could sit and talk or not talk, and both would be okay.
I think from this point on when someone in my life is going through a difficult time, I will change my question.
I will change my question because I want them to know that I do want to know. I don’t want a canned response. I will change my question because I want them to be able to shrug their shoulders, stare at me blankly, and not know how to respond. I want them to be able to answer me with whatever words they can find that may not be an attempt to answer my question but are the words they need to speak. I want them to be able to say nothing at all and know that I hear them. That I know they are not okay and have no idea what words to utter that can possibly convey what they are experiencing.
So, do ask. Ask how I am. Ask others how they are. Ask with different words. Ask with words that convey complete acceptance of whatever the response may be. Ask knowing that they may not be able to respond.
Ask and make sure that you don’t accept “I’m fine” when you know that is not the truth.