How Are You?

By Suzanne Leigh

I am struggling to answer the “How are you” question (retail staff being the single exception. “Good, thanks. You?” works efficiently with both parties, regardless of one’s euphoria or misery).

We are approaching two months since our beloved child left this world.  How are we indeed? We are desperately sad, empty and wistful. At times it hurts to breathe. We are also grateful for our flourishing, generous, optimistic 8-year-old whose presence means that we get to keep the titles of mom and dad.

“How are you?” asks the cheerful dad at my surviving daughter’s gymnastics class. He has been on the peripheries while Natasha waged her war against a deadly brain tumor; politely concerned and consistently pleasant. I smile and there is a pause while I wait hoping that he will decode my silence as an inability to answer. The pause lingers, my smile widens, his brow furrows and we both move away awkwardly in unison.

I realize that I’ve handled this interaction clumsily, but what should I have done? “Good,” sounds flip, dishonest and dishonorable to my late child. “Not great, but how are you?” invites friendly banter with this personable acquaintance. I’m not ready to do that. Maybe I’ll never be ready to engage in that cheerful back-and-forth that I once used to enjoy.

In “Grieving As Well As Possible” author and psychiatrist Dr. Mardi Horowitz advises the newly bereaved who are socially discombobulated to respond thusly: “Thank you for asking about how I am, but I would prefer not going into how I am feeling inside just now. I know you will understand.”

That’s awfully wordy isn’t it, Dr. Horowitz? For parents of minor children, conversations such as the ones I used to have with cheerful dad, are carried out in fast forward mode. Information is swiftly exchanged at school or extra-curricular classes, typically with one eye on one’s barking dog (hope the principal isn’t going to be upset), or the car (did I park it just a tad over the resident’s driveway?).

My guess is that Horowitz, who has had a long decorated career at UCSF, is used to less hurried social exchanges. I get that he is encouraging the bereaved not to self-sequester at a time when we are most vulnerable. I’m just wondering if there is a shorter way of conveying the essence of his “not now, but thank you,” response.

My friend Frances has made a suggestion: “We are coping.”  I will try this one out. But the truth is that small talk with acquaintances and casual friends is a chore these days, the heart’s equivalent to organizing my “Hoarders”-like closet. This might be especially the case if these people have healthy children themselves. Because there’s a question inside of me that can never be answered: How come you get to keep your children and I lost one of mine. She was (is?) a great kid. Why.

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