September 27, 2021

The One Question we Should never Ask someone who’s Grieving.


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I ran into someone I hadn’t seen for many months and who was a dear friend of a close family member I lost in December 2020.

This person casually asked me, “How are you, Roopa?”

And I was so overwhelmed with rage at how casually this question was tossed around that I literally booted up my laptop and decided to write this article.

You wonder why? I’ll tell you.

This story is about a classic question that people throw around but don’t really wait long enough for an honest-to-God answer.

But let me back up just a bit. I’m still too raw, too emotionally distraught, too much of everything extreme to really talk about the details of my loss. Suffice to say that I went (and am still going) through pain like I’ve never been through in my life. Eight months on, I feel the anguish in every micro-inch of every part of my body as if the tragedy happened yesterday—like it happened an hour back or a few minutes/seconds ago.

See, that’s how grief works.

They say time is a healer, but I don’t agree. Grief doesn’t go away with the passing of time. Does it lessen? Yes. But (and this is a big but) if your grief was at 100 the second after you experienced loss, with time, that 100 becomes 99.9. Eight months later, my grief has gone from 100 to 99.

So, no. I live. I wake up. I breathe. I’m writing this story. I shoot the breeze and post silly things on social media. I know I’m alive. But has my grief lessened? Barely.

This is what others don’t understand. Please don’t think I’m pointing fingers at anyone. Eight months after my loss, I’ve realized that almost everyone tries hard. They do their best. They try and do the right thing. I know now that there are more good people than bad.

But none of these realizations really help deal with the pain of going through intense loss.

This is not just my story. I’ve talked to over 50 fellow loss-travelers on this earth over the past eight months. And every single one of them agrees with me.

What we also agree with is the one question that should not be asked to those who are grieving. The one question that turns us from grief-stricken humans to crazy, angry bastards is, “How are you?”

Think about it. We all ask this trite, mundane, and commonplace question to everyone.

We run into our daughter’s teacher when we drop her off in school and ask, “How are you?”

A delivery guy brings home our pizza and we ask him, “How are you?”

We bump into an acquaintance we secretly hate at the mall and make polite conversation with, “How are you?”

We toss the question around but seldom wait or care for an answer.

And then…

We meet someone who has lost a mom, dad, husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, grandmother, granddaughter, grandfather, grandson, and we ask…how are you?

How do you think we are?

They think it’s been a few months since we lost someone then we must be okay-ish now. So, “How are you?”

As someone who has been on the receiving end of this question hundreds of times over the past eight months, let me save you the trouble of waiting for an answer.

They are not okay. We are not okay. I am not okay.

I get that we ask this as a society of functioning humans to be courteous, to be polite, to maintain some sort of social order. We also ask the question without really caring much about the answer. Most of us ask the question and move on.

But when it comes to those of us suffering from intense loss and grief, this mundane question is one of the biggest triggers of all. Because, like I said above, we are not okay.

But see, that’s not the answer most people who ask the question want to hear. They want to hear that those suffering from loss are “doing okay” and that way everyone can “move on.” And those suffering would probably be okay if they could answer the question honestly.

When someone asks, “How are you?” they’d like to answer, “My life is a blistering, raging hole of grief and pain. I go to bed thinking of the person I lost and wake up thinking of them. And every hour of every second of every single day, I think about them all the time. I’m gutted. I’m heartbroken. I’d like to set the whole world on fire.”

But obviously, they can’t say that. Not to everyone. So, they say, “I’m fine.”

Even though they’re not.

You know why? Because barely anyone, even the ones who consider themselves kind, selfless, and understanding, actually wants to take on the weight of someone else’s grief.

And I get it.

Life’s too f*cking hard for all of us, especially in this post-pandemic world, and no one has the mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual bandwidth to take on more trauma and grief.

I get it.

And I (we) also agree that we don’t hold it against anyone for not wanting to share in the grief.

What we all want, however, is an end to the question, How are you?

Because frankly, we are not okay. And we have no idea when—if ever—we will be okay.

So what can you do if you wish to help, reach out, be a friendly presence in someone’s life?

Instead of asking, “How are you?” just say, “I’m here.”

I’m here if you want to talk. I’m here if you want me to share in your silence and be silent with you. I’m here.

If you call them on the phone, just say, “Hi, I’m here to listen if you wish to talk. To stay on the line…quietly…if all you need is a person on the other side…listening to your silence and hearing your pain and grief.”

If the only way to connect is via email or messaging, you can say, “Hey, this is to let you know I’m here, thinking of you, praying for you, and being there for you. I cannot be there with you physically or call, but I’m always on the other side of your email. Tell me what you need, and I’ll do what I can.”

That’s it.

If you can’t be there for whatever reason, that’s fine also. In that case, just say nothing.

The thing about grief is that whether it’s been a few hours or days or weeks or months or years, it doesn’t ever leave someone. They cannot just “move on.” None of us want to move on.

With time, we learn to navigate our way around that grief and learn to live with it, always hanging heavy deep inside our hearts, but we will never move on.


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