“How are you?”

As we near Christmas and are in the midst of the Advent season, I feel like I should get all scriptural here. Well, not today. Instead, I focus on thoughts about grief as shared by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, of Eat, Pray, Love fame and a few critically acclaimed novels). Since Gilbert grew up on a Christmas tree farm, I guess that counts.

Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

Her thoughts on grief came in the wake of the loss of her partner, Rayya Elias, from cancer.

“People keep asking me how I’m doing, and I’m not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I’m OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we’ll see.”

Gilbert reflects many grieving people’s confusion on how to answer the question of “how are you?” We can answer in the moment, but is that what the question is seeking? And, if we say we are doing well, does that mean we no longer grieve? There is no right answer here, just the quandary of grief. And why we don’t always know how to answer it is because we do not control how grief affects us.

Gilbert explains that “I have learned that Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”

Oliver and his siblings
Oliver and his siblings (Maria, Dov, and Gray) not long after his cancer diagnosis.

I remember that not long after Oliver’s diagnosis with cancer I went to a video game store with Dov. As we were checking out the clerk, showing good customer service, asked me how I was doing? “Well,” I thought, “my youngest son was recently diagnosed with cancer and may not live. I’m worried about his sister and brothers and how they’ll handle this. And, of course, I’m scared for my wife. And for me. Also, I don’t know how we are going to pay for all this since regular insurance does not cover it all. And we have to get back and forth to Grand Rapids a lot. How are we going to get Dov to soccer practice?”

I just told him I was doing fine.

As a grieving person you get good at figuring out what people are really asking. Do they really want to know how you are or are they just greeting you? As I move farther from Oliver’s death (six years) I can pretty much assume it is a greeting. If people really want to know how I’m doing they usually sit down with me and say “really, how are you doing?” [Okay, there is one person who I’ll see laughing with others and then when he sees me he gets all somber and gives me the two-hand handshake and asks in low voice — “how are you.” I tell him I’m fine. He is not comfortable with death.]

As Gilbert says, it is force of its own and you can’t predict when and how it will hit you. Like love, which is the mirror of grief, you cannot control how you feel. So, “how am I?” The answer can change anytime. But don’t stop asking.

2 thoughts on ““How are you?”

  1. It’s just a greeting, and I wish they’d stop asking. I acknowledge with condolences and respect what your family has endured.

    I hope you will – to borrow from CS Lewis’ wife – find yourself surprised by joy this year.


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