On being asked, “How are you doing?”

In a public or holiday setting, I focus on trying to participate more or less normally in the social situation. But when other people (I mean those who are not close friends or family) see me there, it triggers their dormant memory of my husband’s death, and they may feel it as their opportunity to share a sympathetic moment.

There are ways of doing this that work. Yesterday at Easter service two people offered me loving hugs, one of them a woman I honestly didn’t recognize even a tiny bit. It was nice. They were giving me something that I could receive from them. They didn’t ask for anything back.

On the other hand, a well-meaning pastoral person asked me at the cookout, in a serious voice, how I was doing.

Here is a tip for those who wonder what to say to a bereaved person: don’t ask solemnly, “How are you doing?” It’s like a kid asking for an elephant: if I could give it, you’d find you didn’t want it after all.

Instead I recommend another question I was asked at the same cookout: “So what have you been doing lately to be good to yourself?” I could honestly reply, “Planting trees.” But in response to the minister’s inquiry I merely said that I was done with my food, and asked him where the garbage can was. I couldn’t really think what else to say. The images and feelings he was asking me to tap into are ones I don’t access in company.

By all means, employ the usual formulas of daily living. It’s okay to ask “How are you doing?” in a casual manner, expecting a formulaic response. But please don’t invest the question with that mournful, soulful emphasis, as if you wanted a heartfelt answer. You’re just asking to be allowed to take a postcard away with you as a wistful little souvenir of another person’s recently bombed landscape. Right now it’s winter and I have chores to do. Don’t be a tourist. If you really want to know more about what it’s like here, stick around. Carry water. Chop wood.

Someday, chances are you’ll come back here to live.

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