Saying “How Are You?” To Those In Grief Isn’t The Best Choice Of Words

by admin on April 2, 2015

I recently read one of the best articles of what not to say to those grieving the loss of a loved one that I’ve read in a long time but because it is copyrighted, I cannot reproduce it in its entirety here.

The premise of the author, Nancy Guthrie, is that asking the question, “How are you?”,  while good intentioned, is not a question grieving people like to hear.   It’s as if those asking want a progress report on your grief, to see if you are getting better.   But as Guthrie’s husband points out,  “In the midst of my own pain and confusion, I suddenly also felt responsible to others to give an account for my progress. As the words of my reply came measured through my lips, I wondered if my report would be acceptable.”

So as you interact with someone going through the lonely adjustment of grief, Nancy Guthrie offers a half dozen other questions you should you ask in place of “How are you?”

Well worth reading HERE.

{ 102 comments… read them below or add one }

K April 2, 2015 at 8:29 am

I completely disagree with her. It is her opinion from her experience, which is fair enough, but it certainly doesn’t tally with mine. “What is your grief like these days?” goes way over the line for me and as for the second one about ‘it must be so hard’ is even worse. Unless I know that person exceptionally well ie close family, I’d find that incredibly intrusive and unwelcome.

“How are you?”, on the other hand, gives me a choice. I can take it in the usual sense as a social pleasantry and say fine, thanks. Or, assuming there is sympathy in the tone, I can share. The other two do not give me that option. They bring my grief up without attempting to gauge whether this would be welcome or not. They could also blindside me in a way that ‘how are you’ never can.

There is nothing wrong with grieving in private. This lady did it differently and found strength another way, but she assumes that way is right for everyone, when it simply is not.

Reply

Hey Nonny Nonny April 2, 2015 at 11:16 am

ITA. How is “how are you” an intrusive demand for a progress report but “what is your grief like these days” not?

The latter is WAY more of a demand for a progress report IMO. And I would not have welcomed it at all.

Reply

babs April 2, 2015 at 8:33 pm

Yeah, I thought that was worded a bit weird. There were other good suggestions. That first one though… unless you’re the person’s psychologist or grief counselor, that seems like a very strange question.

Reply

Michelle C Young April 2, 2015 at 9:54 pm

I agree. If you’re not actively sharing my grief (as in close friends or family), I’ll probably interpret “How are you?” as the basic daily pleasantry, and answer it in the typical manner, “Fine, thanks, and you?” If I’m feeling particularly bad, I may ask, “Do you want the polite answer or the real one?” and if they ask for the real one, I may say, “I have a cold,” because I’d figure they’re asking about my health, not my grief.

But “What is your grief like?” seems like a definite request for a report on what stage in the process you are currently processing.

“How are you holding up?” works well for me. It’s clearly a question about my grief, as well as my personal over-all wellness as I deal with the grief, and the possible psychosomatic effects that go along with it. Still, it’s not asking for a report. It’s more a warm question, acknowledging that you have issues, and also acknowledging that you may very well be dealing just fine. Nice and open-ended, in my opinion.

This is all from my own perspective, as a person who has gone through grief. IF someone asked me “What is your grief like?” I would have tried to describe it, how it feels, in all its details, as well as how it effects me, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I would have analyzed the snot out of it. Whereas “How are you holding up?” can be answered simply enough. “Some days are better than others, but in general, I’m dealing alright. Thanks for asking. How are you doing?”

Reply

Phitius April 3, 2015 at 11:04 am

“How are you holding up?” is exactly what came to mind for me as well, and for the same reasons.

I’d be really put off by “what is your grief like?” I’d honestly want to look at the person and say “It hurts, it’s grief, what the hell kind of question is that?!?!?” I think it would anger me more than anything else.

Reply

AnaMaria April 7, 2015 at 10:23 am

No kidding. What do people think you’re going to say? “It’s actually going good; losing a loved one isn’t as bad as it’s hyped up to be.”

Calli Arcale April 2, 2015 at 11:40 am

I agree. “How are you?” is such a commonplace thing to say that it is said automatically and likely means nothing whatsoever. And if she doesn’t like being asked to report on her grief status, I fail to see how “What is your grief like these days?” would be any better. For me, it would actually be much worse, since that’s *explicitly* asking for a grief progress report. It also seems to be asking about the grief as a discrete entity, separate from the person, which seems rather dehumanizing to me.

Reply

mark2 April 2, 2015 at 12:04 pm

That was exactly my thoughts as well.

Reply

Lisa H. April 2, 2015 at 1:50 pm

K – I could not agree with you more! I read what this lady said and had to stop reading… I certainly do NOT want to get into a long discussion about the status of my grief with everyone I come in contact with. “How are you” is just fine.

Reply

admin April 2, 2015 at 2:49 pm

If you read the context of the post, it presumes people are interacting in church and the presumption is that those asking know the griever more than casually. It’s not “everyone I come in contact with”.

Reply

K April 2, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Still totally unacceptable to me. Maybe her congregation does things differently, but in that case her whole premise needs to be qualified as starting with “In my church”.

Reply

Anonymous April 6, 2015 at 2:21 pm

Even then, some churches have hundreds of members, and multiple different service times (with most people going at the same time each week), and not everyone there knows each other even by name, let alone well enough to ask personal questions.

Angel April 2, 2015 at 6:13 pm

In that context, it makes sense. However, if this is someone who is an acquaintance, a co-worker, or someone who you don’t know all that well personally–I would say that “how are you” is probably least offensive way to approach a situation like this. I also liked–I thought of your loved one when I passed by this place. I guess I don’t see “how are you” as a demand for a report I think of it as a standard greeting/pleasantry. But reading this article definitely makes me think of the whole subject differently. I suppose this is why some people tend to drift away from friends who have experienced loss–they don’t know what to say and they don’t want to hurt them further. It shouldn’t be like this, but it happens sometimes. Thanks for posting this article.

Reply

Michelle C Young April 2, 2015 at 10:00 pm

If someone from my church asked me about my grief, in an official capacity, I would definitely do the in-depth analysis thing, including whether or not I needed assistance with financial arrangements, with settling the estate, with having meals brought in, etc.

While I was grateful for the help, answering those questions took a lot of energy.

Now, “I thought of (dead loved-one) when X happened” or something along those lines is a GREAT thing to say, in my opinion. It keeps that loved one alive in memory, and reminds the grieving person that they are not alone, and that they are not solely responsible for keeping that loved one alive in memory.

Reply

schnickelfritz April 3, 2015 at 2:54 pm

I have had my share of horrible, tragic grief.
You never, ever, ask anyone questions, unless it is your immediate family, and you are in the “loop” of the grieving person’s everyday plan, and only do this, at HOME. You have to be their rock, know how to read them, just being there and silent is good too. You NEVER ask a person, even your immediate family, anything like this, in outside of the home. They could buckle to the floor in grief and have a breakdown. It is amazing, after something tragic and public happens, that is news in the neighborhood, everyone thinks they are in your “circle” – I was amazed at the very personal questions from acquaintences, who seem to just want the “real” story. They were not people I would phone and share with, on a good day. Let alone after a tragedy.
If, during my horrific time, someone, at church, work, friend, would say “how is your grief today?” If I could even muster up words, I would say :
“Well, I was having a little period of relief just now, a few minutes here, where I stepped outside of my GRIEF bubble, and was almost enjoying hearing the birds outside, seeing the blue sky, and appreciating the honeysuckle aroma, and nearly having a bout of normalcy in my head – but hey – thank you for reminding me, and jerking me back into my grief space”

After what I have been through, it is horrifying, that this writer, would ever think that was appropriate. Grieving people will volunteer to you, if you are CLOSE ENOUGH, what they want to share. “How are you doing? how are you holding up? Do you want to make a lunch date?” Are perfectly fine, appreciated and normal approaches. People want distractions from their pain – not an in-your-face reminder. And do not put yourself in someone’s immediate life, if you were not there in the first place. I had a high school friend see me at a grocery store, talking very loudly, excitedly in my face, about how sorry she was, she just couldn’t believe it, and what so and so already told her they knew – and asking about how the case was going, etc. I hadn’t talked to this chick in ten years. I looked horrified at her, and walked away. Left her standing there. There was more chance I would share with my favorite cashier, than this ding-dong girl, looking for scoop to share with other people, because she met me “in the grocery and I brought her up to date!” NOT.
To me, it is no different than: How is your tumor? Your cancer? How is your weight loss coming along? How is your colitis today? Is your son still in jail? How is your cheating husband, is he still at it? How is _______ insert anything painful or negative.

Reply

VoteGilligan April 2, 2015 at 3:02 pm

A colleague of mine recently lost her adult daughter. I have not been able to speak with her since it happened (we are teachers and work in different departments), but I saw her this morning and said, “Mrs. W, I haven’t seen you in a while. I wanted to let you know you’ve been in my thoughts and prayers. How are you doing?”

The amount of grief that passed over her face was heartbreaking, but it gave her the chance to say, “Not well, but taking it one day at a time” and put down her bag for a long hug.

I can’t imagine saying any of those suggestions to her–they are much too intimate and personal. I would be overstepping. My best friend has experienced a lot of loss in her life (two siblings and a child at 28 weeks) and I can text her and say, “I saw the funniest __________ and thought of B. Do you remember when….”, but I held her the nights she sobbed and said she wanted to die without them.

Grief is personal and the way we deal with the grief of others is personal. We must continue to use what works and to keep in mind the person we are speaking to and how he or she deals with grief.

Reply

essie April 3, 2015 at 5:52 am

I read “What is your grief like these days?” and my mind immediately completed the question with “Tell me. And remember, this is for posterity so be honest.”

“How are you?” allows me to automatically reply with “Fine, and how are you?” if it’s an acquaintance or a not-particularly-close friend. If it’s an intimate friend, then I can “dump” on them, secure in their sympathy and character, knowing they’ll handle it (and me!) well. In either case, I don’t have to think about an answer; it’s there.

“What is your grief like these days?” is intrusive coming from an acquaintance or NPCF and I may have to struggle with a polite way to say “NOYB” at a time when I’m tired, heartsore, and not feeling especially courteous. Someone who’s never experienced that level of grief will not understand and I don’t have the desire, imagination, or energy to try explaining it so they CAN understand. Answering either of those requires self-analysis and effort to formulate an answer that’s honest and appropriate to our relationship at a time when I. just. can’t. A close friend won’t need to ask; they’ll know.

Reply

Coralreef April 2, 2015 at 8:32 am

After reading the articles, I find the suggested questions very intrusive and I would feel like I’m playing psychologist to the grieving person. These questions are way too pointed and demanding an up-to-date answer. How is asking “How is your grief today?” more sensitive than “How are you?” Sounds like the author want to measure the grief in a comparative study over time. And what if the plans for the anniversary or mother’s day is to stay in bed and cry all day?

Those questions are asking for details from the greiving person and frankly, after losing loved one, I was not in a mood to expand on my progress or lack thereof. The questions I appreciated the most were “Do you need something?” and “Want to talk?” I could answer “yes”, “no” or “can you do a load of laundry?”

Yes, I still like to talk about my father and sister with those who knew them, but I’m not going to react well if someone wants to dissect my feelings and plans for remembering (or not), should it fall short of their expectations.

Reply

Devin April 2, 2015 at 11:22 am

I like your suggestions much better. Especially when you may have been very close with the person grieving, but not at all with the deceased. I also try to stay very religion neutral when expressing condolences. You may (probably do not) not know the religious preferences of the person grieving and the person who has passed. Being a person who does not openly express grief, I usually offer up what I can do to help. Being active, or making an active contribution, helps ease my own grief and is the form of condolences I appreciate the most. “Is there anything I can do?” “No, just knowing you’re thinking about me/them helps” or “Yes, I need to tie up some personal affairs, could you make sure everyone has grabbed their coats before leaving?”

Reply

EllenS April 2, 2015 at 8:10 pm

Yes, I think “do you want to talk?” is a very nice thing to say.

Reply

SingActDance April 2, 2015 at 8:50 am

I don’t know, I find all of those alternatives WAY more invasive than a simple “how are you?” Asking how someone is doing at least gives them the option to be non-committal, whereas the others require them to practically give a book report on how their grief is going. Seriously, asking what days/times are especially hard for them?

Reply

another Laura April 2, 2015 at 9:17 am

These are all wonderful alternatives. I have lost a brother, two grandpas, a father-in-law and had a miscarriage and these would have been blessings.

Reply

Lily April 2, 2015 at 9:17 am

I don’t like when these articles paint people with the same brush. My dad died a couple of months ago, and I found it comforting to be asked how I was doing. I know she is trying to be helpful, but people grieve differently. Sure, maybe there are better things to say to someone, but these can be awkward situations and as long as someone’s intentions are good, I don’t think it’s proper to dictate what they say and how they say it.

Reply

admin April 2, 2015 at 10:27 am

In the article, Guthrie makes the point that because people do grieve differently, asking “How are you?” as a default question to all grieving people isn’t agood test of actually how people are doing.

Reply

Calli Arcale April 2, 2015 at 11:44 am

Maybe so, admin, but honestly I’m not crazy about her alternatives. The only one I like is her final suggestion: “I know the holidays/mother’s day/father’s day/your anniversary is coming up. I will be especially thinking of you and praying for you as that approaches. We would love to have you over, would you join us?”

That one expresses sympathy and then does what so many people forget to do and offers an actual, concrete bit of help, rather than the open-ended “how can I help?” or “call me if you need anything”, which can be difficult when you’re grieving because you don’t know how they can help and you won’t want to trouble them with your needs.

Reply

Shoegal April 2, 2015 at 3:49 pm

I agree – that was the only suggestion that I actually thought was usable. I tried to imagine how I felt when I was grieving and being asked, “What is your grief like these days?” would have been just awful to hear. I’m supposed to describe this to you? I would have been searching for an answer to that and angry that I had to respond. I like the suggestions here like, “if you want to talk, I’m here for you” , “Is there anything I can do?”, “Do you need anything?” – seems way more helpful than an analysis of my grief.

Reply

schnickelfritz April 3, 2015 at 3:36 pm

Well, if it is a “test”, it is none of the inquirer’s business. That is the problem with the question. The grieving person, will share with you, if they are comfortable to let YOU in. That is the point. Those close to the person, will not need to ask – they will know.

“How are you?” opens a dialogue – if the person wants to share intimate details, believe me, they will. And you never ask more than “how are you?” in a public setting. You don’t put people on the spot, in normal conversation – let alone someone who is grieving. “How are you?” gives the person, a way out, and they can respond as generic as they wish. “Well, I am finally eating, sleeping, getting back into routine” without tearing off scabs for the “test” so to speak.

If you are speaking to someone, and asking questions, as those suggested in the article, and they shut you down, you have crossed their boundary. Guthrie needs to realize, that yes, people do grieve differently, and it isn’t always any of Guthrie’s business, unless he is at home, nursing his widowed mother, that may be OK.

Reply

A different Tracy April 7, 2015 at 11:48 am

This. No one should presume they should be “testing” the status of my grief.

Reply

lakey April 2, 2015 at 9:37 am

I liked this article because unlike a lot of similar articles on the subject, it didn’t contain a long list of things NOT to say. Instead it offered some things you could say. The problem is that everyone handles grief differently, or is at a different stage of handling it. I think that no matter what you say, it could be difficult for some people. Personally, if I had recently lost someone, I would feel better with “How are you?” than with some of the suggestions offered. That’s just me. I’m not the type to want to share my personal feelings, and being able to say, “I’m hanging in there,” would be easiest for me.

Reply

Tracy W April 2, 2015 at 9:39 am

I think that anyone should be awfully cautious about offering to pray for someone else. And somehow many of these suggested questions rub me a bit wrong, they all come across as assuming something about someone else’s grief, eg it’s very hard, some bits are especially hard, etc. They might be the right things to say to someone else, depending on how you know them (obviously offering to pray for someone you go to church to is a different matter from offering to pray for someone who has never mentioned it).

Reply

MamaToreen April 2, 2015 at 10:02 am

My family usually uses, “How are you holding up?”

Reply

Lisa H. April 2, 2015 at 1:51 pm

Also very nice.

Reply

Kat April 2, 2015 at 2:27 pm

I say this too. I think it acknowledges that the person isn’t doing well and that they aren’t expected to be.

Reply

just4kicks April 2, 2015 at 10:30 am

I speak from my own experience in that, while I DO rehearse in my head what I’m going to say to someone who is experiencing a loss, more often than not, I do end up starting with “How are you?”
I may be alone in getting somewhat tongue tied around those are (rightfully) upset or crying, and unfortunately, according to the post, blurt that out first.
I will be more mindful next time the situation presents itself, although, “How are you?” is a LOT better than some of the doozies I’ve heard over the years.
Example: My mom’s very best friend, who I and my kids call “Aunt B”, lost her dear Mom due to heart failure a few weeks before she was to turn 100 years old. She told my mom weeks later that a distant relative actually said to her at the viewing, “Well!!! She was almost 100 years old!!! Whaddya think she’d live FOREVER!?!”
Sheesh.

Reply

Michelle C Young April 2, 2015 at 10:05 pm

When I lost my grandmother, we knew for months that she was dying. Still, it was a shock when it happened.

So, of course we didn’t think she would live forever. It still hurt like the Dickens!

Sheesh, indeed.

Reply

just4kicks April 4, 2015 at 3:19 am

@Michelle C Young: I’m so sorry about your Grandma.
It’s been 11 years since mine passed and I think of her all the time.
You may think I’m crazy, but over the years, my Grandma has made herself known in lots of ways.
The one that got to me the most was one of my son’s birthday is in July, and since my folks have a pool, we always celebrate his special day there.
A few years ago, my folks asked what my son Collin wanted for his bday meal and he said he was hungry for KFC.
Around dinner time my mom asked if I would drive her and she would run in for the food.
I’m waiting in the car with the radio on and am listening to a song I like on the “oldies” station.
After the song, the dj says, “….And THAT was a special birthday request to COLLIN from DOROTHY….Have a great b’day and a special year!!!”
Yes, my Grandma’s name was Dorothy!!!
My mom comes out with buckets of chicken to find me sobbing, and was like “what the hell happened?!? Are you okay?!?”
It took me a minute or so to stop crying and tell her, then SHE burst into tears as well.
The people walking past our car must’ve thought we were NUTS!

Reply

Rowan April 4, 2015 at 5:43 am

When my brother was killed in a car accident last year, I had to ID his body. My mum came with me, but there was no way she could’ve done it. Before I went in, the policeman who took us there was wittering on about how a tree was the worst thing for a car to hit because it had no give and it was guaranteed the car would come off worst and blah blah blah. I wanted to scream “IF THEY WERE SOFT WE WOULDN’T F***ING WELL BE HERE!”

Reply

admin April 4, 2015 at 8:36 am

He was trying to prepare you for what you were to see instead of forthrightly telling you your brother was a mess.

Reply

just4kicks April 4, 2015 at 12:21 pm

I had a friend years ago who was an Army medic and then became a EMT when he got out of the service.
For a few years he was partnered with another guy who got his “sick kicks” telling distraught family members “what a bloody mess” the patients were when he got there.
After a year or so of this (hoping he’d knock it the hell off!), my friend went to his superiors and asked to be partnered with someone else.
Of course this guy had a fit when he was questioned about his “tactics” and after a few reports were filed against him, was suspended without pay for a few weeks.

Reply

admin April 4, 2015 at 5:10 pm

I believe the police officer was being kind by trying to prepare Rowan for what she may see the best way he knew how. He could have been descriptively graphic lie your friend’s partner. My son is a paramedic and has been on scene with numerous vehicular deaths when a moving vehicle hits an immovable object and it often isn’t a tidy death. People coming to identify bodies are frequently not prepared for what they see, as if there was a presumption that the deceased would appear as if prepared by the mortician in a casket so trying to discreetly warn them should be seen as an act of kindness.

just4kicks April 6, 2015 at 2:59 am

@Admin: I agree with you in Rowan’ s case, they seemed like they were doing their best to prepare him to view his brother’s body.
My buddy’s partner? Maybe he felt he was doing a service, but some stories my friend told me were just downright cruel.
Like the young teenage girl who was pulled from a demolished vehicle with three other teenagers. The accident happened on icy roads in the driver’s neighborhood, the driver didn’t make a hairpin turn into the development, hit the curb and flipped the car.
They ended all dying, two of them on scene.
The paramedics, police and fire department all knew this was the driver’s home street, and were trying to keep the girl’s parents from getting too close to the accident.
My friends partner yelled out to one of the cops, “HEY! THIS one’s missing an eye….if it rolls past you, toss it this way!” No joke…

Rowan April 6, 2015 at 5:28 am

Admin, no, he wasn’t being kind. He had the manner of a man who’d been there done that a gazillion times and was now immune to the horror of it all – he pretty much said that to us when we got there. I don’t think anyone can EVER be prepared for seeing someone they love in that situation, to be honest, but there were better ways to prepare us than the way he did. He was utterly unsympathetic and tactless. “This may be a shock” or similar would’ve been fine. Repeatedly telling us that accidents like this are usually fatal and horrific was completely unnecessary. We knew it was fatal. That was why we were there.

And no doubt this comment will also end up in moderation limbo.

White Lotus April 2, 2015 at 10:46 am

I found the suggestions creepy and intrusive. While I get the man’s point of feeling like he is supposed to grieve to a standard and “report” on his progress, I don’t think it is being asked “how are you?” that is causing this. I think it is a pretty normal feeling, no matter what is asked. His alternatives sound stilted, boorish and full of psychobabble. Ick. “How are you?” can be a mere pleasantry or a serious inquiry depending on how it is asked, and is easy to deflect. “How can I help?” is good, though. And ” Deathday?” Utterly bizarre! Hurtful and offensive, even, to some people. Buddhists and maybe other folks hold memorial services on the anniversary of someone’s death. On birthdays, too. It isn’t sad or morbid. It is a way of staying in touch. We are not particularly squeamish about death, and we do come back. Reincarnation, you know. It is sad to lose the relationship, but we will meet again. Sad but not bad describes it pretty well. We call it the “anniversary ” date. I suggest that is a better word than some just-invented piece of creepy nonsense.

Reply

GratefulMaria April 2, 2015 at 10:47 am

The suggested responses would make me feel as though I were being analyzed rather than comforted. I much prefer “How are you?” As a couple of posters already said, it lets the person being asked set the tone. Depending on the response, someone could certainly follow up more specifically, but opening that way would make me feel pushed.

Reply

NostalgicGal April 2, 2015 at 10:51 am

It totally rubs me the wrong way to bring up someone’s grief or grieving unless they initiate it.

I would say rather than How Are You?, try How are Things Going… Is there something I can do to help… Would you like to walk(talk, sit down, have a cup or glass of X)…

Reply

Karen April 2, 2015 at 10:53 am

If someone asked me, “How is your grief today?”, I would be totally aghast. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying, “How are you doing?”.

Reply

admin April 2, 2015 at 2:54 pm

I pictured a dear friend asking me that question, not some random co-worker, so I would not have been aghast at the question.

Reply

mark April 2, 2015 at 3:44 pm

I just don’t understand the reasoning behind why this question is so much better than “how are you?” I wouldn’t be aghast @ the question but I still wouldn’t like the question, since it doesn’t give me the easy option of sidestepping the grief issue.

Reply

A different Tracy April 3, 2015 at 1:34 pm

I’d be aghast no matter who asked it. A dear friend can ask me “how are you feeling” or “how are things going” and I’ll know they’re asking about my state of mind, not just making a polite exchange of meaningless phrases.

Reply

Harley Granny April 2, 2015 at 11:03 am

My father just passed away in January….if any of these questions had been asked I would have looked at them like they had two heads

I know this next part will sound selfish but I don’t want to know how you dealt with your loved one’s passing….(key words here) AT THIS TIME…I need to concentrate on my grief. We had a Aunt at the funeral that spent her time telling anyone who would listen her tales of sorrow. While she’ll say she was trying to help…the rest felt like she trying to re-drum up sypathy for herself.

I’d rather be asked “How are you?” Then I can reply…”I’m having good days and bad days but it’s getting better.”

Reply

Michelle C Young April 2, 2015 at 10:15 pm

I don’t mind the odd “It worked for me,” bit of talk about how they dealt. Done succinctly, and with a positive attitude, it can be really helpful. Alternately, if I’m feeling so bad that I don’t even want to crawl out of bed, hearing someone say, “I’ve been there. I understand,” can be very helpful, as well, IF it’s done with that same positive attitude of non-judgement and hope for the future.

My ideal speech from someone who has also suffered grief? “I’ve been in that same low place, and I know how hard it is to crawl out, so don’t feel guilty or punish yourself for not bouncing back immediately. It takes time, and it tends to come at you in waves, so you’ll feel better, and then fall down again. I understand. You’re not alone. I found comfort in X, Y, and Z. Find what works for YOU. If you want to talk, I’m right here.”

Make the “X, Y, and Z” short, such as a basic list, like knitting, work and prayer. Don’t go into detail unless I ask for it. When I’m ready to ask for it, I will. Or, I may find my own solution, and not need to know yours. All I really need to know *at that time* is that there is hope, and there is someone who understands and is willing to help me through, whether I choose to use their help or not.

Reply

clairedelune April 2, 2015 at 11:23 am

But her first suggestion is “what is your grief like these days?” which seems simultaneously to create all the above-mentioned “progress report” problems, AND to be 10x as intrusive.

Reply

Enna April 2, 2015 at 11:35 am

I see nothing with “How are you?”: I can understand that might upset some grieving people but those questions could easily upset people too. We are all different: but if the person I said “how are you?” to just shrugged their shoulders or said they didn’t want to talk then that’s fine. If they said they are angry, annoyed, scared, upset etc I would take that on borad too. That’s why I ask “how are you?” I don’t expect the greieving person to say they are happy etc. If they want to tell me how they feel they can, at least they know that I’m prepared to hear what ever they want to say or not to say. If they are angry and want to shout at me – that’s fine. It might help them.

Reply

EllenS April 2, 2015 at 11:39 am

I agree with those who feel that these questions can be much too intrusive/personal for many relationships. I may know that a co-worker or neighbor is dealing with loss or illness, and wish to express, as she puts it “that we care. It lets the person know we haven’t forgotten about their loss.”

But in many situations it would be wildly inappropriate to ask details of their grieving process, or wildly inappropriate for them to unpack their heart to me or in that time/place. When I lost my mom, I would have run a mile if anyone but my husband, very best friend, or therapist asked those kinds of questions of me. I would assume they were an “emotional vampire”.

I prefer to offer things I can do that are appropriate to the relationship – make dinner/invite them to dinner, or (at work) temporarily cover for them if they need time off, or a simplified version of the author’s offer to pray for something specific. My feelings during the grief process were raw enough, I certainly didn’t want to display them for other people.

Reply

the cat April 2, 2015 at 11:48 am

These alternative questions sound really intrusive to me. Anyone I would be willing to answer them for already knows me well enough to not need an answer. And then there is the issue of losing someone you have mixed or even bad feelings about. I once met up with someone who had recently lost a mother she never got on well with. I offered the usual “I heard about your mom. I’m so sorry”, and she snapped back “Don’t be. I’m not”. I hung onto how that made me feel when my own mother with whom I also had a nightmare relationship died. I hung onto the idea that social forms are to express solidarity , recognition of the existence and shared humanity of others and should not be interpreted literally and when someone said they were so sorry to hear about my mother, I just thanked them, and was warmed by their caring. They didn’t need to know that I looked forward to holidays without her trouble making and drama. I’m glad I was spared having to deal with someone asking how I was going to get through upcoming holidays. Blindsided by a question like that I might have been stunned in to blurting out “much better without that b****h to spoil it”. I favor Miss Manners dictum that social forms are designed to be innocuous and that almost any creative substitution for them is likely to cause pain and problems.

Reply

Markko April 2, 2015 at 11:58 am

If I had not read the article and pondered the reasoning, I would be very annoyed if I were approached this way. A touch on the arm, a face animated with sympathy, and a low voice asking how I’m doing would not be offensive at all. After all, why would you be here if “how I was doing” was not your concern? How this small phrase is said makes all the difference, and cannot be expressed with words in an article. That is not to say that the article has no use; if compassion is not your long suit, the greetings in this article will be MUCH easier for you to successfully pull off. Whether or not the grieving person will appreciate them will depend on how much they are into “political correctness” I would think.

Reply

Pat April 2, 2015 at 12:06 pm

I agree that these questions may be too intrusive and may not be appropriate in every context. I certainly wouldn’t come up with them out of the blue – they might be appropriate if the grieving person and I were in the midst of a private heart to heart conversation. That being said, I think one of the kindest things you can do for a grieving person is to let them know that you remember their loved one and also to let them talk about their loved one. My widowed friend told me that she really appreciated that my husband and I would mention and reminisce about her deceased husband. Many people (including family members) never brought up his name after the funeral for fear it would upset her I guess.

Reply

mark2 April 2, 2015 at 12:08 pm

When I went through this, I didn’t want anyone bringing anything at all up or I would just burst out crying–I still found it far more comforting to have someone just stop by and sit with me with a glass of wine and not say anything. Eventually I would find my voice and start talking and wow was it nice to just say what I was feeling with no prompting, no commentary, no judging, no soothing words of comfort –just listening.

Reply

Dee April 2, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Anything other than “How are you?” assumes too much as a beginning to a conversation. I didn’t like any of the suggestions because they were way too probing and religious, the latter being particularly problematic and presumptuous unless the parties know each other very well, in which case one would think that there wouldn’t be a problem in knowing what to say. “How are you?” is open-ended and allows the other party to decide how much info they want to share. Showing that you sincerely care is not a problem. Giving a grieving person the time they need to grieve in private as well as an open ear in case they need it is all anyone really needs to do. I see a lot of issues with these suggestions, as they do neither for the grieving party.

Reply

Ergala April 2, 2015 at 12:59 pm

I might be in the minority but honestly I am so sick of the “Never say this to XYZ…” articles. It’s no wonder people just kind of avoid someone if that person is going through a hard time, these types of articles honestly make everyone wonder if they are being insensitive even when they aren’t. The only time I get my hackles up is when someone tries to turn the death/loss into a positive event. For example “They are in Heaven now” or “At least they aren’t suffering anymore”….grief is not about the deceased person, it’s about the pain of those left behind and how they are going to fill that void that was left when the person passed. Some of the most insensitive things I was told when I had my 2nd miscarriage was “This was mother nature’s way of telling you there was something wrong with the baby..”…or my personal favorite “God wanted another Angel.”.

If you are wondering what to say just talk to me, ask me how I am doing, ask me if I need anything. Heck don’t talk and just listen. I’m not going to be angry at you for asking if I’m doing alright, I’m going to be angry if you analyze me or disappear when I really need you most because you don’t want to offend me.

Reply

mark2 April 2, 2015 at 7:14 pm

@Ergala, I agree. I remember one of my wheelchair bound friends, posted one of those “never do this” articles about wheelchair bound people, with the words “I HATE people who do these things to me” and realized that one of those things (touching the wheelchair when talking to the person in the chair) was something I had just done the day before. Boy, did I feel like a complete idiot, and now it was obvious she HATED me according to her post, and obvious it was about me because I had just done that very thing. There seems to be something very ungrateful about the “never say this” articles, almost as though these folks are furthering victimizing themselves by complaining about the rest of us who are just trying to be helpful in strange and uncomfortable situations.

Reply

EchoGirl April 3, 2015 at 11:56 am

But look at it from the other side. I don’t think your friend was posting that specifically to call you out on one incident; it sounds more like poor timing. Yes, your friend could’ve phrased it better (I doubt she was talking about you so much as about strangers who make assumptions or do the same things over and over) but the people who write those articles write them because they’ve gotten the same problematic things over and over. I struggle with clinical anxiety, and the “10 Things Not to Say to People With Anxiety” lists always ring very true to me, because I encounter people over and over who say the same things that don’t help at all/can make things worse.

Reply

Ergala April 3, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Sure a lot ring true for me as well, but I can’t control what other people say, I can only control my reaction to it and control how I let it make me feel.

Reply

MamaToreen April 3, 2015 at 6:54 am

The closest I came to any of that was at the funeral of an old friend. She babysat my brother and me while my mom worked. Heck, she babysat half the neighborhood! After the usual commisserating with her kids, whom I have known my whole life, I said, “She always wanted to watch over us all the time. Now we can’t stop her!” But, again, we grew up together.

Reply

Library Diva April 6, 2015 at 11:38 am

I’m sick of the “Never say this” articles, too. The baby ones are the worst: they seem to say that after someone has a child, you should keep your germ-infested intrusive self home and avoid all contact: don’t send a gift because they’re not appreciated and the parents already have too much stuff; don’t cook them anything because they probably won’t like it; don’t even call because you’ll probably call right after the baby went to sleep, because you’re terrible. HOWEVER, if you want to clean their house or run their errands, your presence is really appreciated! Just don’t expect to see the baby because NOT HAPPENING. You’re there to HELP, not to coo over a new life, you selfish friend, you!

Reply

Lucretia April 2, 2015 at 1:13 pm

I agree with Guthrie on the idea that people are different, and therefore respond to questions differently, but I really don’t like her alternatives to “How are you?” (a question that I had no trouble with). For me, “How are you?” allows me to tailor the intensity of my answer depending on how close to me you are. For the person asking me because we see each other while I’m out jogging, they’ll get a “Fine, thanks” or “hanging in there”. For those who are closer, they’re asking out of concern, and will get an actual answer. These questions she suggests, I truly wouldn’t take well, although I would do my best to be polite. My grief isn’t performance art, so I will not be commemorating the death day in any way whatsoever (and why would you ask that?). My grief is also not a pet, so it’s just there. Thanks for asking, (I think). Those are the responses of an individual. I understand that others may choose to spend birthdays or anniversaries of death in other ways- and that’s wonderful. Whatever brings you comfort! But asking about it to me, seems more than a little intrusive. Asking about prayer is fine for me, but what if the person is atheist, or has seen their faith shaken? It could make things so much worse. I think she might have done the best to say “everyone deals with grief differently” and left it there. For me, the people who helped the most didn’t ask how I was (because it was obvious) and just said “I love you. Call me when you need me.”

Reply

EchoGirl April 3, 2015 at 12:02 pm

Some religions do make commemorating a death day part of the observance (I’m not even that religious, but I honor the death days of my Jewish relatives because I know Judaism meant a lot to them and the anniversary of death is important in Jewish faith) so it’s not like that’s a completely off-the-wall thing to do. That said, that should be something the grieving person volunteers, not something someone else pulls out of them.

Reply

Lucretia April 4, 2015 at 12:41 pm

True, and that was part of my slight issue with prayer being used as a general go-to with grieving. Grief does funny things to faith sometimes, and you can’t be sure how the other person will react. In fact, the whole article could probably have been titled “You Can’t Be Sure How People Will React” and just stopped there. 😀

Reply

magicdomino April 2, 2015 at 1:52 pm

Another example that one size doesn’t fit all. When my mother died after a long illness, “How are you?” would have been the perfect question. Like Lakey, I prefer not to share with just anyone. In fact, “I’m hanging in there,” was exactly how I answered that question.

The most important thing here is to try and pay attention to the intent behind the words, not the words themselves. I know that is difficult when you are deeply distressed, but even the best-intentioned and wisest people chew on their foot occasionally.

Reply

Lyn April 2, 2015 at 2:11 pm

I think I would prefer being asked “How are you?”. Then I choose how much to share. If I don’t feel like talking about it, I can say “Fine” and move one. If I do want to talk about it, I can say “Not great” or something like that and then go on to talk about it. I don’t think “how can I help?” is a great one. I think it’s better to offer something, like “Could I bring supper over for your family one day next week?” “Can I take (a family member) to the airport for you?”

Reply

lil nancy mcgill April 2, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Yeah, I would hate these alternatives way more than “how are you.” When people asked me how I was, I usually said “hanging in there,” or, “doing the best I can.”

I know from when I had cancer myself the tonal difference in the polite, small talky, “how are you,” and the “how *are* you…?” that really means “are you gonna live, or what?”

Reply

mark April 2, 2015 at 3:53 pm

Honestly this article really doesn’t make any sense to me. She quite literally says to not to ask someone “how they are doing” in the first part of the article when suffering from grief, then in the second part of she advocates doing precisely that, except in a much more intrusive manner, pounding on their grief.

Reply

MPW1971 April 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm

One of my oldest and closest friends is in his mid-40’s, with a 3 year old son, and a wife with breast cancer. When I ask him “how are you doing?”, it is the offer and invitation to talk, should he need it. Generally speaking, he’s very busy, as is understandable, and I live 3000 miles and 3 time zones away and have my own busy life. I don’t always have the time to talk, nor am I in the right frame of mind to be of any use to him. If I just had the WORST.DAY.EVER, I wouldn’t ask him how he’s doing, because I wouldn’t be the best help. If he needed to talk right then and there, I’m sure I’d get over whatever was temporarily troubling me, but I don’t just volunteer to talk because it is convenient for me – it’s also when I know I can be the most useful to him. Most of the time, people just need to vent and to have their own efforts reinforced, and to have their fears and concerns validated – that’s all I can do, and it is what being friends for 30 years is all about.
If it’s a complete stranger or a distant acquaintance, it’s less meaningful and less of an invitation for actual help or conversation. If it’s a relative or a friend who lives close by, it can be an invitation to get together more – not just to socialize, but if someone has been sick or busy with a sick family member, they may be behind on chores – especially the difficult ones like outdoor maintenance. Instead of offering to go out out for dinner, it might be better to offer to help rake the leaves and clean the gutters.

Reply

Comradde PhysioProffe April 2, 2015 at 5:22 pm

Having read the article, I think it’s pretty clear that it is intended in the context of a very particular social context: a particular close knit religious community. So maybe the suggestions make sense in that particular context. But I agree with the overwhelming consensus that they sure don’t make sense in ordinary arms-length social contexts, like at school, work, etc.

Reply

SingActDance April 2, 2015 at 7:50 pm

Even when I was very religious, I would have found these questions strange & invasive coming from my church community. Maybe it’s just the way they are worded, but they seem stilted and forced. But then I was never a big fan of “churchy” language. Like when somebody would ask how somebody was doing and they’d say, “I’m blessed!” Just never cared for it.

Reply

EllenS April 2, 2015 at 8:17 pm

I agree that a very close-knit religious community is the only social context in which these questions might be appropriate.

I read the whole article twice, and I do not see anything in it that seems to limit her advice to that context. It is presented as very general advice, as “People ask me all the time what to say and what to do for people who are grieving the death of someone they love.”

But I think it’s a good discussion to have.

Reply

Samantha C April 2, 2015 at 7:51 pm

The thought I keep having is that I wouldn’t want to assume the grieving person wanted to talk about their grief. It’s not on the same level, but when my boyfriend’s cat died, I asked him how he wanted support…did he want to talk about it, put off what we were going to do? Did he want some distraction and normality of routine? He picked distraction and routine, and I didn’t bring the grief up until he did. I would never want to ask someone how their grief is going – maybe what will help them more than a sympathetic ear would be life going on around them, and an acknowledgement that their life is about more than grieving.

Reply

Lindenharp April 2, 2015 at 9:09 pm

When my husband died (12 years ago, next week), I found the innocent question “How are you?” to be very difficult to deal with. “I’m doing okay” usually felt like a lie, and telling the truth would have meant venting some very angry grief. Eventually, I learned to say, “About as well as can be expected. Thanks for asking.”

Now when someone I know is grieving, I pass that phrase along in case it may be helpful to them.

Reply

Lizajane April 2, 2015 at 9:51 pm

My stepson died last year, and there had been a period of distance between my husband and him. A teenage dustup which was “grown out of”, but DSS went to college out of state and lived out of state for almost 10 years after. As an adult, he was definitely closer to his mom. They lived close to each other and both enjoyed an urban lifestyle in the city an hour away. We’re rural, outdoorsy types.
Big events were shared and DSS was here and totally supportive when FIL died and the same at my mother’s passing.
However, we have a dear and well meaning friend who believes that my husband has declined several invitations and loss of about 25 lbs, even though he’s functioning at home and work MUST mean he feels guilty. Because they weren’t “close”. Many others are concerned that hehe’s not talking about it. He is. Just to people he chooses. Can’t my husband just grieve the way he needs to? Can’t he just remember, talk about and hear stories about good times? Why does everything have to be about the fact that his son is dead instead of that he lived?

Reply

just4kicks April 3, 2015 at 12:47 am

I’ve always been of wary of saying “it was a beautiful service”.
Be that as it may, we wouldn’t be there in the first place unless someone died.

Reply

Lizajane April 3, 2015 at 7:26 am

Ooh…I never thought of it this way. I did enjoy it when a co-worker told me that my mom’s was the best funeral she’d ever been to.

Reply

AthenaC April 3, 2015 at 1:47 pm

I agree that of course it’s unfortunate that someone died, but I always saw a “beautiful service” as way to honor the deceased.

Reply

JO April 3, 2015 at 4:53 am

Interesting article. While I must agree with many of the above comments that don’t believe her advice would work for everyone, I find it enlightening to hear about others’ experiences and subsequent advice. It is, if nothing else, food for thought.
Seeing this brought to my mind an article I came across shortly after losing a pregnancy, titled “Ten Things Never to Say to a Miscarriage Survivor.” I can’t even count how many times someone told me it was “for the best.” Best, I must ask, for whom exactly?

Reply

wren April 3, 2015 at 7:24 am

A person could say “I hope you are okay,” instead of “How are you?” That removes the pressure of question answering.

Reply

Callalilly April 3, 2015 at 8:49 am

There is NO ‘one size fits all’ approach to grief.

My parents died 16 days apart. I would have loved a ‘How are you?’ rather than people treating me as if I was a grief time bomb about to go off any minute.

I would also have preferred a ‘How are you’ to observations from people about why I didn’t seem to be grieving, at least to their satisfaction.

Reply

Lizajane April 3, 2015 at 1:06 pm

This.

Reply

Stephbwfern April 4, 2015 at 8:16 pm

This absolutely!
Something that I have learnt, in my years working as a nurse, is that everybody grieves differently and it it not for anybody to impose their beliefs/expectations of grief onto others.
I have come across many many people, professionally and personally, who would have loved a simple and genuine “how are you?” either being told how they should feel or having the whole topic of their loss and grief glossed over all together.
Modern culture does not deal with loss and grief well, as it is – I think it is a sore mistake to make people afraid of asking the simplest question of “how are you?” that could make all the difference for a grieving individual.

Reply

Susan April 3, 2015 at 10:01 am

I agree with the majority of posters that “how are you?” is fine. The suggestions the author made would really make me uncomfortable, even from a friend. I don’t assume my friends are putting a time frame of acceptable grief on me. I certainly wouldn’t do it to someone else.

Reply

Shannan April 3, 2015 at 10:15 am

It was interesting to me that the author suggested that maybe we should say “I really miss ‘person’ when…..” . My SIL really resents that statement.

Reply

Devin April 3, 2015 at 10:37 am

This question also assumes the person is still dealing with grief. When my grandmother passed away last year, we knew it was coming. I had flown ‘home’ one week to be with her, and when she pulled through I flew back to work. A week later my mom calls to tell me she had passed away that day, and they were making the arrangements that weekend. By the time I flew home again, I had dealt with my ‘grief’ and sorted through my emotions. At the visitation we encouraged people to socialize and relive happy memories. If someone had asked “how my grief was” I would feel awkward in telling them that I had already ‘moved on’ a little over a week later. I loved my grandmother, we had a good relationship, and I felt that grateful she passed without any more suffering. Everyone feels grief differently, and that means some people don’t feel ‘grief’ for long periods of time. Forcing grief onto them isn’t thoughtful or kind.

Reply

delislice April 3, 2015 at 12:53 pm

I’ve done some counseling and still would feel weird asking someone, “How is your grief today?” That just seems creepy and intrusive regardless of the context.

What I do often ask is, “How it today going for you?” I find that people seem to respond well to it, and my educated guess would be that:
1. It’s not “How are you,” which they may be getting tired of;
2. It recognizes that things are different and difficult but is not too intrusive;
3. It’s still phrased in a way that allows the person to answer “Fine,” or “OK” if they don’t feel like unpacking it;
4. (and maybe most important): It brings the scope of the question down to a manageable size. I’m not asking how you’ve been since … and I’m not asking you to project how you think you will be days, weeks, or months from now. I’m asking how today, this one day, has been unfolding for you.

And if you like, you can tell me how today’s been really hard, or that the numbness and shock is wearing off, or that someone sent you an email that made you actually smile today and you thought you would never want to smile again.

Reply

Anonymouse April 3, 2015 at 9:43 pm

I love this question. Thank you.

Reply

Rowan April 4, 2015 at 5:50 am

I lost my dad to cancer almost 5 years ago, and my brother to a car accident last year. People often ask me how my mum is doing and how I’m supporting here. Which is nice, I’m glad they’re concerned for her, but makes me resentful as well. I know it’s horrific for her to have lost her husband and son (especially him – it broke her) but I lost them too and I feel like I’m expected to shelve my grief because it’s apparently inconsequential in the face of what my mum is going through.

One bit of advice I’ll give is, instead of saying “Can I do anything?” ask if you can do a specific thing. People grieving are often on autopilot and honestly can’t think of what they might want done. So “can I pick up groceries for you?” or “Do you want some help with the garden?” or “How about coming round for supper?” Those require far less thought to answer.

Reply

Ergala April 4, 2015 at 9:49 am

I agree 100% And if you offer and the person does say they need something, for pete’s sake follow through! I can’t tell you how many times I am told someone will help me with something around the house and then it never happens. If I get the cajones to ask them about it I am met with surprise that I thought it was a real offer. If I honestly feel as though I can’t or won’t follow through with something I won’t offer to help with it. I just wish people gave me the same courtesy….

Reply

daisy April 5, 2015 at 8:23 am

I lost my husband of 34 years in January. A few weeks after his death, a neighbor asked, “How are you?” to which I replied, as I usually do, “OK.” Then he said, “Just OK?” like I was supposed to be fantastic or something. I bit my tongue and went on my way.

Other than that, when I hear “How are you?” I am really hearing, “I care about you.” Sometimes people don’t know what to say, that is alright.

Reply

Isi April 5, 2015 at 9:45 pm

I lost my mother in February and this article is really true. In fact about three weeks after her passing I expressed my frustration about it to my best friend, strangers/acquaintances/distant relatives asking ‘How are you?’ over and over As I told my friend, my gut reaction, every time, is ‘HOW THE (expletive) DO YOU THINK I AM?! SERIOUSLY?! SERIOUSLY?! I have managed to resist.

Anyway… to be honest the questions offered in the article don’t work for me either. This is just me, but all I wanted was to be left alone from strangers. For me, this is a personal matter and I find any questions about it (except from my siblings, my father, and my best friends) intrusive in the extreme. Later, I might be willing to talk about it with someone who has just lost their own parent, if asked. But that’s just me, though.

Reply

just4kicks April 7, 2015 at 8:47 am

This happened to be a very good post for my daughter to read last night.
One of her classmates, (a very nice young man, 5th grade), was in school yesterday on what happened to be the one year anniversary of a car accident which killed both of his parents.
He now lives with his grandma.
I asked why on earth was he sent to school? Maybe his grandma wanted to keep up his regular schedule, so he was “busy” and didn’t have time to dwell, which would be damn near impossible I imagine.
I asked if he was okay, and my daughter said he cried quietly most of the day. Poor kid.
She said she wanted to say something nice to him, but was afraid anything she said would upset him even more.
I said, “did you talk to him?” ….And she, yes, she asked him if “he was okay?”

Reply

admin April 7, 2015 at 3:09 pm

Awww….

Reply

just4kicks April 8, 2015 at 3:16 am

@Admin: yes, poor little guy, I feel so bad for him….He is an only child too.
Today, when my kids got home from school, I asked my daughter how “M” was doing today, she said she pulled a girl away from him and gave her a “come to Jesus” talk after this girl approached “M” and started telling him the latest “yo momma” jokes. As in, “yo momma is SO dumb……”.
This girl said she had no idea that both his parents died a year ago…..my daughter said, “yeah, right.
Leave him alone!”

Reply

Sarah Webber Berson April 8, 2015 at 1:04 am

I agree with (almost) everyone else. “How are you?” is polite and non-intrusive, leaving the grieving person to answer it as s/he chooses, without going into details if they don’t want to. I think most people grieving understand that other people feel awkward and, regardless of what they actually say, mean to convey their sympathy and caring.

Reply

Isabella April 14, 2015 at 8:41 am

“How are you?” also should not be used as a greeting. As was pointed out in Catholic School, most of the time, you are asking this of a perfect stranger. Although you might want a truthful answer from a friend or family member, to those in the grocery store or walking down the street, you don’t necessarily want the whole “Well, my boyfriend just left me with my grandma to get married in Vegas but at least they left the dog!” You are basically wanting people to lie to you and either ask the same in return, but without an answer, or say “okay” before moving on.

Reply

admin April 6, 2015 at 9:16 am

The professionalism of an emergency medical service is very much dependent on who leads it. That kind of behavior would not have been tolerated in the departments the EMTs and paramedics I know work for.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: