“How are you?”. How many times a day are you asked that? And how many times do you think the person asking wants (or is ready to hear) the REAL answer? This is the challenge for a griever, and one of the many things that comes up daily when surviving grief. Being out in the world can be a very difficult place to be, and unfortunately it may seem that no matter who is asking, we give the same answer, “I’m fine”. But why? Is it a matter of trust, fatigue, or is it something else…?
By nature, you are inherently a social creature. It’s a survival skill that began with a desire to meet our most basic needs. The thing about grief is that you may not be feeling particularly social right now. In fact, it may just be that other people (friends, family, neighbors, co-workers) are one of your biggest stresses or disappointments through this grieving process.
Every encounter after loss can put a griever on edge.
Think of it this way. Prior to loss you probably felt that you could go into most situations fairly confident about how to interact and respond to those around you. Especially those you are close to. And even if you are someone who felt socially anxious at times, you may not have found you put too much thought into the question, “how are you?”.
But life when surviving grief is different. “Can this person handle my answer? Do they really want to know?”. Suddenly every interaction, and even the smallest and seemingly most innocent question, can make you stop, think, and measure. Every interaction is an assessment. And every person is being evaluated as either someone who is going to “be there” for you. Or not.
It’s important that you understand why you may not choose to share your grief with others.
Following loss you may find yourself feeling simultaneously lonely, while also extremely hesitant to spend time with others. After all, the bonds may no longer seem as strong. The things you previously had in common are no longer connecting you or linking you together.
When surviving grief, the only thing a grieving person can think about is their loss. It takes every bit of focus and every ounce of energy. And through it all it may feel like no one truly understands. Or even worse…that no one truly cares.
Deciding who to bring on this grieving journey with you is one of the most important tasks of grieving. But before you can do that, it’s important to understand why this struggle exists. “Why do I find myself keeping my grief hidden in the shadows, when all I really want is for someone to understand just how hard this is?”
It may feel like part of surviving grief means making your loss more comfortable for others.
“I don’t want to be a burden.” “I don’t want to ruin everyone’s good time.” “I can’t keep saying the same things to the same people.” Sound familiar? I spoke earlier about us being social creatures and here’s why that matters. At the heart of it, most grievers are afraid their loss will make others run and hide.
Surviving grief is really just that: survival. It seems that while we may be frustrated and disappointed by the people in our lives, we’re also afraid that they’ll all disappear. If they haven’t already. For those who are left, we put on a smile, say we’re okay, and try to pretend that we’re not being strangled by the hands of grief every moment we try to breathe.
The problem with this is that people want you to be okay. They have no idea what to do with you in this state. And the minute you tell them “you’re fine”, they’re off the hook and every interaction that follows they’ll be less likely to ask. Meaning eventually, they won’t ask at all, or even think it’s necessary. Because after all, you said it yourself. You’re fine.
You are the guide, you get to determine how long this process takes, and you don’t have to make it tidier in order for others to feel okay.
My mom shared some advice with me several years ago, following a surgery I had. I was a mother of young children at the time, and eager to be back on my feet and be okay. “Whatever you do, just don’t get out of your pajamas too soon. Because as soon as you do, everyone thinks you’re okay. And suddenly expectations for what you should be able to do to take care of everyone and everything goes right back up again”.
How does this relate to grief you may ask? Well, even though I wasn’t physically healed, I was eager to clean myself up, put on my clothes, and get back in to the routine. Mothers do it all the time. But my own mother was right. Suddenly everybody assumed I was okay, even when I wasn’t. They didn’t think they had to take care of me anymore because I had done such a good job of showing them I was okay. Even when I wasn’t.
This is what happens every single time you say you are okay when you don’t mean it. You are the guide, helping others know how you’re feeling, what you need, and what this process is really like. You can’t expect people to know or guess, and while you may not want to be a burden or ask too much of those around you, there has be to a better middle ground.
Decide who you want to come on this journey with you, and for everyone else…create a script.
It’s just not realistic to share your true grief with everyone. Not everyone wants to know. Or can handle it. Or will give you the response you want or need.
So one of the first steps is going to be to decide who you can share this with. I expect the list will be small, and it may not be your closest sibling or best friend. It could be your coworker, who has experienced a loss similar to your own. Or a more distant friend who has shown up in a more authentic way following your loss than you could have ever guessed or imagined. Sometimes we don’t choose the people on this journey as much as they appear and make themselves known.
Start by finding one person. And no matter how scary or awful, or the fact that saying it out loud just makes it feel so much more real – tell them how you’re REALLY feeling. It doesn’t have to be every weird thought and feeling. You’re allowed to keep some part of this grief for yourself. Just be certain that there is one person who has a true understanding of how big this loss is and how long you’re going to need support for.
For everyone else, create a script. The longer you’re doing this the better you’ll get at assessing: who you’re speaking to, how much time you have to talk, and whether it’s a good setting to talk and share. When asked how you’re doing keep it simple and keep it real: “It’s been a lot harder than I ever could have imagined”. Maybe the conversation continues or maybe it ends there. But either way, this kind of answer allows you to feel authentic to your grief.
And if you feel that you truly don’t have anyone to talk to? Find someone. Even if it means seeking professional or group help.
As I said, we are social creatures. Even if you are an introvert. Even if you have never felt like you’ve needed people before. This is one time where it can really help to let someone in and let your voice be heard.
It may not always be the ones we thought or hoped would be there. Disappointments are a big part of surviving grief. But there are people in this world who care, and can help. And finding them could just be the most important step you take on your path toward healing.
This truth isn’t for everyone. And you are entitled to hold on to the private parts of your grief. Just be certain that realistic expectations are set, and that it’s not you who has led everyone to believe that you should be doing better sooner than you’re ready.
In the end, my hope is that the only person you’ll be responding “I’m fine” to when asked, “How are you today?” is the kid at the grocery store checkout.
Fight for your grief, stay authentic, and take every step you can to avoid isolating yourself from those who care.