Grieving in the Workplace (and Beyond): The Dreaded Question, “How Are You?”

My amazing husband, Tom DeBlaker, passed away on June 19. I’ve written in this blog about becoming his caregiver after his stroke. Now I am navigating being a widow.

One of the toughest aspects of grieving is being asked an innocent and well-intended question: “How are you?”

I know no one asks this question maliciously. No one is trying to put me on the spot or make me feel inadequate in my expression of grief. Most people who have asked me this question since my husband died know that I just lost my husband, and many of them, in fact, after asking me how I am, immediately follow up with something along the lines of, “Oh, what a terrible question, but I don’t know what else to say.” We are used to asking the question as part of a greeting; it’s a default for us and we have to think deliberately to deviate from it.

I ask struggling people “how are you?” too. Since my husband died, I’ve caught myself asking his mother, brother, and son, “How are you?” I’m talking specifically here about asking the question of people who are grieving, but this question is one that also causes anxiety for folks with disabilities. My husband often struggled to answer the question “how are you?” when he was wracked with pain or frustrated because of the constant challenges his environment presented for him. He wasn’t fine and didn’t want to imply that he was, but he also didn’t want to let loose with a litany of his troubles.

I’m now looking for an alternative to the question. The brilliant Kat Vellos discusses what’s wrong with the question in general—for example, the way it is used socially assumes that a short, to the point answer can be provided—and offers many better alternatives here. What makes Vellos’s suggestions particularly useful is that they are broken down by whether you are communicating by text or in person and by whether you are ready to “listen deeply” or not.

Most people who have asked me “how are you?” since my husband died are friends and family who are genuinely interested in how I am doing. I’ve been responding with “crappy” and “not great” or just a shrug, although I went to a coffee shop today and when the barista asked me how I was, I got choked up and then kind of mumbled, “Oh, you know . . . “ Tom’s mother said she is responding to the question by simply answering, “I am.” She said it’s the only response that feels accurate to her. With the exception of the barista, the people asking me how I am know that I recently lost my husband.

When I do go back to work, I’ll be asked the question by folks who don’t know that my husband died. Simply answering “fine” will work because they will, for the most part, be asking as a form of greeting rather than as an authentic inquiry about my well-being. But “fine” doesn’t feel right to me when I’m not fine, and damn it, it’s ok to not be fine! I could try, “Today is a tough day, but I’ll get through it,” which feels more authentic and is vague enough to—I hope—not invite follow-up questions. There’s also the slightly evasive, “I’m ready for this meeting” or whatever is the reason I’m seeing the person.

I think I’ll pilot “good enough, thanks” the next time someone asks me. It’s short, doesn’t invite conversation I don’t want to have, acknowledges the social function of the question, and is likely true, implying that I am “good enough” to have the meeting or conversation or whatever has brought us together.

I’m going to use Kat Vellos’s list of alternatives to break myself of the habit of asking “how are you?” Some of the suggestions she offers that I like are “It’s good to hear your voice” (for a phone call) and “It’s good to see you” for a face-to-face meeting.