It is seems such an innocuous phrase doesn’t it, ‘how are you’. It is a phrase my culture frequently asks of people when we first see them.
It is however one of the hardest things you can ask someone who has had a traumatic experience or bereaved in the last twelve months. Even those of us who know how hard it is to answer find ourselves using it sometimes. Those three words just slip out before you even realise you have asked.
So why is it a problem, well firstly we are not okay. Our life has changed dramatically , and if the death was sudden we are also still reeling from the shock months later. So asking us ‘how are you’ feels both odd and challenging. I’ve yet to find a great alternative but the following I have appreciated hearing;
- I have no idea what to say, but I want you to know I have been thinking of you
- I know there is nothing I can do, but I am here for you
- I am sorry for your loss, it must be so hard
And if you find you have asked ‘how are you’, don’t panic! Simply follow it up immediately with an ‘oops, sorry that’s a daft question. No need to answer unless you want to’.
When someone does share how they are, whether that’s in an email, text or in person, make sure you acknowledge the hurt, the grief and the pain if they mention it in their response. I have been left reeling in recent weeks by a couple of friends who have been so discomforted by my painful response they have ignored it or worse begun comparing griefs. I know it isn’t easy to sit beside someone who is grieving, but whatever you do please don’t ask and then ignore or try to fix it.
Grief is not a problem so it cannot be fixed. Grief is something we learn to carry in our lives. Sometimes we learn quickly, but when the pain is deep it can take a very long time and will be intensely lonely at times. If you truly think you have a solution or want to share your own experience of grief then please make sure you acknowledge their grief first, and preferably check to see if a solution is what the griever is seeking. They might just want you to be there as they vent anger, cry or share difficulties.
So how am I . . . . . (yes I am allowed to ask that of myself!)
Well I continue to function, and by that I mean sleep, eat, get dressed and occasionally do things such as meet up with a friend, go for a walk or drive somewhere. I have been away for a few weekends, and even made two new friends. One feline (see header) and one human.
Too much activity or prolonged distraction though exhausts me, and I am frequently overwhelmed by even minor decisions and I struggle with paperwork and phonecalls.
Some days the grief is easier to carry but other days it is really hard. A day can begin brilliantly and then become difficult, and vice versa. An object that has brought comfort for weeks can suddenly for a few hours be an intensely painful reminder. An action, such as going to the supermarket, randomly becomes a huge thing one day when it has never been before. Sometimes I know what the trigger is, and may have even initiated it deliberately. Other times I have no idea what it was. It is unsettling and makes me very anxious at times. Consequently plans to go out or see someone always have the caveat – I may need to cancel at the last second. There are also the spurts of anger, usually at the uselessness of organisations responding to bereavement but increasingly with individual responses and actions. The latter I remind myself ‘they mean well’!
I am avoiding the use of the word ‘bad’ to describe those days as they are my reality and it is important they occur. My bereavement counsellor calls them ‘a day of closeness’; a day when my love for him is in my every step and my every breath. I really like that description and am so grateful to her for coming up with it. As whilst the lack of a linear journey is deeply unsettling, the pain can be strangely comforting; a demonstration of the depth of my love for the amazing MrB.
So to answer the question succinctly – I am definitely NOT okay but I am doing brilliantly.