I agree that most people ask "How are you" merely as a generic opening statement, and most people DO wish to understand your life (within limits) and wish to help you.
If you shut off anyone who says "How are you" you -- seriously -- risk being ignored. Which might sound good for the moment... but remember widowed people's chief complaint (as I have heard it) is "where did everyone go?"
I suggest ignoring any pressure to "respond appropriately" and be honest (break out in tears or whatever when they ask) ... or suck it up as a banal but small part of your overall conversation with the person. But do bear in mind that the person asking doesn't have a road map any more than you do.
I don't think any of us are required to be genteel and gracious at all times, perhaps not even at any times.
But I also think being unnecessarily crotchety and taking things personally when no offense is intended -- no matter how clueless the person is -- serves *us* badly in the long run.
Just my experience as someone who, at 5 years, finds her main issues are those of mending fences, rebuilding burnt bridges, etc. (And I don't think I was even that nasty about small talk).
This is why on my blog I won't publish lists of "what not to say," no matter how popular they are with "grief gurus" AND readers. In nearly all cases in my life, I would rather have had people around me and helping, even if they acted like idiots. (Within limits, of course). I felt abandoned -- and I was alone -- and that aloneness did me more damage than a few clumsy words.
My agenda has become one of DECREASING the fear that our friends and communities have of the grieving -- not of increasing or justifying that fear.
Just my perspective, not a popular one, but I own it. :-)
Pardon the cross-posting:
When it comes to everyone's favorite "how are you doing?" I think that a major component is who is doing the asking. I'll use myself as an example here. Coming from my mother, it was said so often that it just became annoying, and would get answered with "fine" just to shut her up. Coming from a casual acquaintance or a stranger it either goes unanswered or more likely "as good as can be expected" which is an answer I seem to give a lot. But coming from a well meaning friend who hasn't asked in a while or is asking because I seem to be in a bad mood, I'll answer honestly, and assuming that they actually want to hear the answer I have no problem with the question, and if they clearly didn't want to hear the answer, then I'll go on and on making them deal with the consequences of asking the question.
Excellent post. Very well said in my opinion. I have been think a lot about this lately and wondering Gee to I make my loneliness a self fulfilling prophesy in certain ways. You comment about "you risk being ignored" reminded me of that and other ways we may actually inadvertently ourselves make it hard for people to talk and help us in certain ways. I am still thinking about that but its something I want to pursue as I realze there may be things I might need to rethink myself to also help others help.
That being said, Here are some interesitng thoughts when I thnk of this topic
Great thoughts and great questions. Seriously Supa, you are awesome for looking at ways to facilitate non-grievers in helping grievers. Brilliant! I hope some day to do that too. I hope my trials and hurts and painful times could help someone hopefully even in a small way have a less painful grief journey. I love that you are already doing this. Its a wonderful thing...
What's really funny is that on another list I'm on, someone (a young widowed mom) just said that:
She HATES "I'm sorry for your loss" (she's not alone, but most of us find it inoffensive at best) and so she won't say it to others.
And she tells other widows "he's in a better place" and "at least he isn't suffering any more" all the time. Probably the phrases that I found the most upsetting.
Which to me proves that while we are all a bit the same, we are all pretty different, too. Weird, huh?
I agree that most people mean well, and find it very awkward to inquire, though they truly want to know and be there for you. Of course there are those who do not have your best interests at heart when probing how you are, but I believe that type is far and few between. It took me a little while to figure it out, but I learned to discern true concern from nosiness. When I'm the one asking I usually say, how's it going, and convey willingness to just listen, in my experience that's what grief needs--to be heard.
Like Fuzzy, I was always bothered much more by "he's in a better place" and comments of that type. The one that pushed my button in particular though was, "he's really not gone."
It probably goes without saying that the farther out I got, the less sensitive I was about what to say/what not to say.
I have been a little surprised at how many people here have experienced extreme insensitivity around their loss. I can only think of one person whose response to my suffering I found to be inappropriate, but even her response was understandable (even though I didn't like it at all.) She was someone who had had cancer herself at a young age, so I think she was too close to our situation to know how to respond appropriately. My husband's cancer perhaps made her feel anxious about her own prospects of a reoccurence which, sadly, happened to her this year. So she would talk to me way too much about the nitty gritty details of my husband's illness, and often, right in front of my little kids. Finally, I had to say something to her, and I think she really didn't like me for that.
I don't see anything wrong with asking someone "how are you"? To me, it's not the words people say, necessarily, but the motivation and emotion behind the words. Death is very, very difficult for all of us to deal with. I think that "insensitivity" around death is likely to be closer to fear, or ignorance, or denial.
I would rather someone said anything at all to me about my late husband...even now, five years after his death...than to say nothing at all, as if he has disappeared even from their memory. Saying nothing, not acknowledging that he existed or that he is missed, or remembered, is worst of all for me.
Nurturing our own responses and feelings and ways of communicating about our loss are probably more important and more healing to us than anything anyone else could ever say.
I've had a lot of people recently asking me if I'm 'getting there'. It's bothering me a bit because they seem to know there's a goal I'm supposed to reach and I don't know what it is, so I don't know how to answer their expectations. A lot of people have also told me lately how very sad my story is and how very hard it all must be for me. These things are true, but if I had managed to get to a less sad place in that moment, these statements are guaranteed to get me crying.
I think the nicest thing people can say to me just now is that it's nice to see me. Not to ask how I'm coping or doing or going, or to tell me how incredibly sad I must be (which I am). I think if they just say it's nice to see me, they'd be recognising how hard it is just to get out of bed in the morning, shower, dress, eat, go to work, pretend to be a real human being. I know how hard it must be for someone who's never experienced this kind of loss and I absolutely appreciate that they are trying to offer me comfort and understanding, acknowledge my grief, be with me instead of moving away or pretending it hasn't happened. I'm just getting shy of meeting up with people because I'm so sad and I cry at the drop of a hat and that hat is often the phrase 'Hi - how are you coping today?'
bumping this up to the front of the line..it is worth the read. :)