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The toughest question for a griever to answer: How are you doing?

Your friend calls to ask: How can I help you today? Or Let’s do something together todaywhat should it be? You may not love the questions, and the first answer in your head may be something touchy like Who says I need help? Or How do you know that I want to do something with you – or anyone – today? Or, even more crankily, I can’t even decide whether to take a shower and you want me to plan your day? You probably don’t say it out loud, because underneath your discomfort, you know that your friend means well.

In fact, those concrete questions may feel easier to answer than the more frequent (and equally well-meaning) one, How are you doing? which on a tough day can sound like a demand for a progress report on your grieving. That question is particularly irritating in that it mirrors the question you may already ask yourself every day: How am I doing with my grieving? Am I doing it right?

Because someone asks, are you to reveal your struggles, or hide them, or answer with platitudes? Not necessarily.

After all my years of talking with people after loss, I have heard and refuted all the myths out there about grief – that it comes in the same predictable stages no matter who you are, that there is nothing you can do but wait it out, that it comes with a timeline of a year or less so you’d best hurry up, that there is a gauntlet of dreadful emotions you must pass through, for instance. To me, the most infuriating one of all is the one that is underneath those other myths – that we are helpless while grief is with us.

One by one, my clients have shown me the opposite – that taking intentional, well-thought-out action on a daily basis prevents helplessness, and leads toward greater strength and authenticity. And gives you control of your story.

Let’s take the How are you doing? question. You can do the usual – sometimes revealing more than you would like to about your inner emotions, or saying you’re fine when you’re not, or mumbling a platitude to get the conversation over with. The friend stays in control of the conversation – she asked, you answered.

Or you may prefer to convert the question into a moment you can be in charge of. It might sound like, I don’t exactly have an answer, but I sure know I’m learning a lot about life. Or you could turn it into a thank you, I appreciate that you asked me. A lot of people don’t know what to say so they avoid me. Or acknowledge the complexity of grief, It’s hard to put it all into words. Or any other honest response that puts your stamp on the encounter and allows you to affirm that you are not helpless after all.

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