Ten Ways to Handle the Question “How Are you?” When You’re Definitely Not OK

We’ve all had those awkward moments, when our lives are not going as planned, and our world has been flipped upside down, whether real or imagined. We are doing our best to cope with our situation and, often, avoiding going into social settings, because of the fear of being confronted with the curious looks, the avoidance of people who don’t know what to say and, for me, the worst, the look of pity…

My worst moment(s) came after my child died. After weeks of isolating myself from the public, I had to go to the grocery store. The funeral had passed, the parade of people and platters of food had stopped, and I was out of everything. I needed to go to the store.

I’ll never forget the first time I went to the store to pick up a few supplies. I really wasn’t prepared for the strange looks, the whispers and the people who would go out of their way to “not” see me; the people who stopped me in the grocery store to hug me, to cry, to tell me they loved my daughter; and to ask me the inevitable question, “How are you doing?”

I know most people mean well, and even the ones that avoided direct eye contact and diverted their gaze, were sincere. They recognized a train wreck when they saw one, and the train wreck was my life. Two weeks prior, I might have avoided me too. It was that day that  I realized that I was now “other.” I was that person people didn’t know how to deal with … didn’t have any idea how to talk to. I was the person I wouldn’t have known how to speak to just a few weeks ago. I didn’t fault them… I didn’t fault myself. I just knew I was uncomfortable. Then there were the courageous souls who approached and asked, “How are you?” I wasn’t angry at them, but I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say.

My first responses were mutterings. I stammered though the usual formalities such as, “Fine. How are you?,” and “OK.” They looked at me as if they were appalled…. being ok, wasn’t ok with them, obviously. I didn’t know what to say to them any longer either.  I realized, they were now “other” to me as well.  I was, suddenly,  somehow very different than the rest of the world. I remember feeling dumb struck when the first person asked me how I was doing. A few weeks ago this would have been an easy question, but now, it was loaded. My first instinct was to be honest. I wanted to say, “Horrible,  I want to die,” but, my brain stopped me from uttering the words I knew the new  others couldn’t accept, couldn’t comprehend or deal with in the grocery isle, so I fumbled out, ” yeah, I’m doing alright,” and made an excuse as to why I needed to get my shopping done quickly. By the end of the shopping trip, I managed to come up with the response, “As well as could be expected.” I liked that statement. It was honest and, yet, I didn’t really say anything at all. The others seemed to accept the response as well. Perhaps they didn’t know what to make of the response, but they didn’t pursue the question any further. That was all I wanted.

Before the next outing, I strategized. I laid out a plan for getting in and out of the grocery store, bank, gas station… and, later, work, restaurants and most social settings. I wasn’t getting caught in those awkward situations again. I needed a plan.

Here is the five-step strategy I came up with:

First: Get in and get out as quickly as possible. Have a list of needed items. Don’t dally. Don’t make eye contact and don’t loiter.

Second: Have a ready excuse as to why you are in a rush and can’t talk in depth.

Third: Don’t forget wine and  beer. You will need a drink when this is over.

Fourth: If you are held hostage in the check out line, pretend to read a magazine or look at your phone. People won’t be as apt to communicate with you. If they force you to speak, acknowledge them, speak briefly, and apoplogize for having to answer your text. Make gestures about how important the text is.  If need be, tell them you are discussing something with your elderly relative, other child, something…make it work. See item #2.

Fifth:  If cornered, use the response you rehearsed — “I’m doing as well as can be expected.” Smile at them. Thank them for their concern. Give a hug if appropriate and move on.

These first five steps got me through the next visit. However, other unforseen obstacles arose.

I heard through the grapevine that people thought I looked thin and gaunt. I heard the word ‘haggard.’  Really, I thought,  they noticed I lost 15 pounds in two weeks. Oh, those clever observant folks.  I also ran into the same people more than once, so I needed to come up with some new responses. I needed to add a few more steps to my plan.

Advanced Strategy Steps Six- Ten:

Six: When going to the store, make yourself look as presentable as possible – ladies, wear make-up (it hides a plethora of pain.) No, we shouldn’t have to, but if the goal is to survive the onslaught of people with a bit of privacy and dignity, why not do it looking good?

Seven:  Wear clothes that disguise your weight. Whether we gain weight or lose weight, when we go through a difficult time, our weight often fluctuates.  Let’s not give them anything else to talk about.

Eight: If you encounter the same person more than once and they approach you and ask how you are, say, “About the same.” This response puts the pressure on them to remember what you said the last time. Let them fumble for word. We have enough to deal with.

Nine: Come up with a few alternative responses to “How are you doing?” Such as  “I’m getting along,” and “I’m hanging in there.”

Ten: Modify the above list to suit your situation and personality, and after you carry the groceries into your house, breath a sigh of relief… you made it through a hurdle. Pop the cork on the wine bottle or twist the cap off of your beer and be proud. You earned it!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. A // W // F says:

    I’m so, so sorry.

    But I also want to thank you for helping me be more thoughtful and aware in these kinds of situations. People like me need your story to know how to best respond with sensitivity and love.

    Thank you — sincerely. <3

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