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: Read More →

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Grief, Unseen

Physical Therapy

I kept my questions casual when first talking with her.

Let’s say her name is Anne, which is not true. And let’s also say, to protect the proverbial innocent, that Anne’s friend’s name is Bryn. Both are in their early twenties. I met them because they were part of the physical therapy staff where I went for an irksome left knee. Anne and Bryn were friendly and efficient; they comfortably joked with patients, shared words of encouragement.

During a particular session, Anne was the one reminding me which exercise came next. She brought me the special flexible ball to help stretch my lower body, and later set the timer for how long I should be moving my limbs back and forth, side to side. I usually bantered with Anne (or Bryn), though sometimes I silently, steadily plowed through the required series of exercises.

When finished with a routine, I asked Anne the question that led to the question.

“Didn’t Bryn tell me that she started working here because you recommended her for the job?”

Anne grinned. “Right. She graduated from college and wasn’t sure what to do next.”

“How’d you two meet?” Read More →

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Death, Slowly but Suddenly

While solo climbing the Matterhorn, Eric fell…

My father’s dying spanned a decade. Though not on his death certificate, Dad died from dementia. His decline seemed like a daily drop of water filling a bathtub.

My mother’s dying occurred in the hottest stretch of a singular summer. There was a clenched fistful of weeks from diagnosis to death. Though not on her death certificate, Mom died because of an opportunistic, savage cancer. But her rapid decline also unfolded like a film stuck in slow motion. A solitary hour of holding her hand in intensive care could feel like a week.

Then, in the midst of their dying, the phone rang. It rang while I wished my father’s cruel dementia would please, please, please be over. It rang while I longingly, lovingly prayed for an impossible miracle to spare Mom more pain.

In one call, my older sister informed me Dad had died. In the other, a year-and-a-half later, a nurse spoke on a phone down the hallway from Mom’s hospital room to tell me about the death.

For all the differences in their dying, and in their diseases and our decisions about care, one of my first thoughts after twice placing the phone back on the cradle was . . .

Dad’s death was sudden.

Mom’s death was sudden.

How often does death feel like that? Read More →

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