9 Things to Ask a Griever Instead of: How Are You Doing?

I'm fine

How are you doing?

That simple query is likely near the top of the list of questions grievers would rather not answer. In the grief support groups I’ve led over the years, participants often mention how much those four words irk them.

If polite, they give a neutral answer, knowing the person asking has no clue about the roiling, unpredictable feelings the death of a loved one has created. If not so polite, grievers may ignore the one asking, and/or turn away, and/or reply with blunt words they may (or may not!) later regret.

Hey, I’m guilty of asking the question. Professionally, I can probably get away with it. The group members, as they seek healing and a better understanding of grief, permit me to ask some of the most predictable questions. In the group, I attempt to create a safe space so that they can give—or not give—answers. Additionally, each person knows everyone else in the room has experienced one or more life-changing deaths.

However, most of a griever’s day is not spent with a supportive group. It’s with family gatherings, at the supermarket, in the place of worship, on the sidewalk in front of your home . . . and here comes the friend or neighbor asking:

How are you doing?

I suspect most grievers will give one of two responses.

  • I’m fine. Which is not You are not fine. You are a thousand miles from fine. Your world is chaos. You have an ever-expanding to-do list. Your feelings are in a blender with a busted off switch. Though a mature adult, you have the concentration of a toddler. But the person who asked the question is someone you hardly know or don’t trust or both, and so you lie. We lie to protect ourselves. We lie to protect our children or other living loved ones. We easily announce we’re fine, knowing it’s a big fat lie.
  • Honesty. You do trust the person who asked. They will give you the time and attention essential for you to truthfully respond. They ask; you answer.

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Let’s assume you are someone seeking to support your brokenhearted friend or family member. You want choices other than How are you doing? Based on what I’ve learned from grief support group members, let me offer 9 alternate possibilities.

  1. When can I take you to breakfast or ________? Fill in the blank with lunch or dinner or coffee. A meal and a time to chat can be important. Many grievers don’t eat, or don’t eat when they should, or don’t eat the “right” things. They don’t like to eat alone. Maybe they don’t want to eat out because they despise crying in public, so bringing take-out to their home could be suggested. If a griever says no thanks to your offer, no problem. But why not ask again later?
  2. I have time on ________ (next week, the weekend, etc.). Are there any errands or appointments I can help with? If asked this, the griever may (again) say no. They, after all, are doing many private or time-consuming things in the days/weeks/months after a death. But keep gently asking when appropriate. Sometimes, having a trusted friend go to the doctor’s office with you is better. Or, if the lawn sprinklers need to be fixed, having a friend accompany you to one of those “big box” stores, with its endless selections (do you need the half-inch or the three-quarter-inch pipe?), is a blessing.
  3. Want to take a walk or ________? Maybe it will be playing chess or window shopping or trying out a yoga studio. But a gentle suggestion about doing something together—a physical or mental activity—can be helpful.
  4. What’s a good time to call you? There will be lonely times. When a beloved spouse dies, the early evening “dinner time” can be awful. Or the griever needs an excuse to get out of bed in the morning and a call might help. Or, call later in the evening, when going to bed is another moment of dread. Either specifically ask, or make a friendly guess, and try to contact your friend/family member at their “worst” times.
  5. How are your ________ doing? Is the griever worrying about their kids? Their parents? Or someone else? Give them a chance to talk about something or someone they have concerns about. A griever may not want to talk about her or his “feelings,” but it can be helpful to have a trusted person ask about the key people in their life.
  6. I’ve missed you at ________. Whenever you feel like you want to go back, we can go together. Maybe the person hasn’t been to worship, or the bridge or book club, or isn’t attending the grandkids’ soccer games. Tell ‘em you’ve missed seeing them. Ask if they might want to go together . . . for the first time back, or for an unknown number of weeks/months, as the griever considers reconnecting with some activities.
  7. Loving silence. In the advice I’ve shared over the years for those who are dying or grieving, this is often an essential one. Being with another, without judgment, without expectations, can be crucial. You don’t have to say or ask anything. Presence is a present.
  8. I heard you mention ________. Based on their real needs or fears, suggest a beautician, grocery store, handyman, restaurant, etc. In other words, listen! Some grievers, now responsible for taking care of “everything,” don’t know a good plumber. If you hear they have a plumbing problem, and know a good one, tell then about it! Or, if you don’t know a good person or business for their concerns, help them brainstorm about how to get the job done. Another version of this, based on truly listening to a griever, is to find out they don’t want to go back to their favorite barber or grocery store and face people they know (it’s too emotional!). Kindly suggest someone or someplace else as a Plan B.
  9. I read this stupid online list of what to ask you—other than How Are You Doing?—and none of the suggestions seemed right for you. So, while it may be a lousy question, just know I am thinking about you and want to be available. Sometimes we don’t know what to say or do. But we want to be supportive. We want the griever to know we care. We aren’t waiting for them to call us, but we will call (text, email, etc.) them. Awkwardly or boldly, tell the person you will support them from here to the moon.

9 is enough, unless you have a suggestion!

Honestly talking with (rather than at) a griever may not be easy. But if the effort includes compassion and listening, maybe both of you will help continue the healing.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I heard that my plumber recently lost his son. I’m sort of dreading encountering him. I dont know whether to say something or ignore the whole thing. It seems cruel if he’s trying to move on.

    • Winnie:

      This is one of the many awkward situations when we know something literally life-altering has happened to a friend or acquaintance. What do we say? When do we say it? Should we say anything?

      And also, just to gently suggest a “different” view . . . I suspect anyone who has had a child die (whether the child is a baby or a mature adult) will not “move on.” The life and death, the memories, will always be with them. But I also think you know that!!

      A couple of things.

      I wonder if writing a brief, tender note would be appropriate for your relationship with the plumber?

      When you see him next, whether “around town” or because he is working at your home, what if you were prepared to say something to him like, “I did hear that your son died, and just wanted you to know I’ve been thinking of you and your family.” Depending on how well you know him, keep it simple. Don’t over-say anything. He may or may not respond, but he will know that he truly has been in your thoughts. And if he says more, because he trusts he can talk to you, then you get the loving opportunity to listen. No words can ease the pain of this kind of loss for parents, but having trusted people give you the chance to say or not say something about their child can help.

  2. Great list Larry!

    When I was a griever, I found I missed the ‘real’ world. The ebb and flow of the day to day happenings. I was mired in the world of death and loss. Most of the time no one could really help, I needed to be the one there. They could not walk this path for me. I asked for news, what were they doing? Normal stuff, truly; like laundry, errands, talking about people that we both knew. I lived vicariously through their news. It gave me a comforting sense that while I was away, the world I knew and loved was continuing and when I was ready I would have a path to become grounded in the new life I would have. I would not have to start over. It gave me something to think about besides the sadness and the loss of choices that had become my normal.

    For some grievers, this break from the life they’d been living, is years, even decades. I could not participate physically most of the time but being able to keep up with what my normal had been, was a cherished gift and gave me a way to move back into that life with some sense of belonging. Doing this was not easy for my friends. They wanted to help me in the moment and that was not possible so they called and visited and shared and gave me a foundation for my someday that I did not want to come and wanted to start now. I’d share how much I missed my life and they’d assure me that they’d be there when… they’d remind me of our plans… I knew they were with me, heard me and I could ask for anything and if they could not do it they would find someone who could but most importantly that when the horrible, inevitable conclusion came, I was not out of touch, looking in and the world had not moved on without me.

    • Thanks, Sierra!

      I suspect your need is shared by others, wither grievers or caregivers. Having a good friend share a little public or personal news, even a little “normal” gossip, may give the person a kind of portal into the world beyond. Their own narrow, intense world of grieving, or caring for a loved one, rightly dominates everything, but they get a chance to hear about other things.

      As always, I appreciate your insights!!

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