“How are you doing?”
Why does this question make me uncomfortable, almost panicky? It seems like a simple question to which I ought to be able to give a simple answer. But, in truth, it is a very complicated question. There is no short answer. No easy multiple choice answer other than “all of the above.”
And I know you do not have time to hear all of it, the essay answer, even if I could come up with the words. Right this very minute, I may be breathing normally and able to speak. An hour from now, or thirty seconds from now, I may be running to find a hiding place before the next torrent of tears breaks again.
Anyway, there are no words in any language that are sufficient to the task of expressing what I am experiencing. In some cultures, the women wail when someone dies. But even wailing is inadequate. There are some things that cannot be halved by sharing them. Grief is one of those things.
So, I say something like, “Fine.” Or, “O.K.” I feel bad when I say this, like I am lying. But it really is no lie. When you have been hit by a cement truck, but your injuries are somehow not life threatening and you are still conscious, and someone asks in the emergency room, “How are you doing?” you can truthfully say, “I am alive, I’m O.K.” But you have still been hit by a cement truck.
I know your question is probably sincere, but I also know you do not really want to hear the whole thing and that you are afraid I might start to tell you. You are nervous about the potential for tears and about how you should respond. You have other things on your mind. You know you cannot help. You are Uncomfortable. Not only that, you are afraid-afraid of provoking an emotional scene and being helpless to do anything to really help. Afraid I might lose it badly and not stop at your particular comfort level. The whole thing is just uncomfortable, and most people instinctively maneuver to avoid discomfort. I know I do.
I think the art of comforting people is a skill most people are losing. We don’t get the practice like folks get who live in less advantaged cultures. Not long ago, most families suffered child loss, or multiple losses, at least once. But, here and now, the bereaved tend to stick out like a sore thumb, or we feel like we do, and sometimes we disturb the carefree life many people feel they have a right to. A grieving family member can be a real wet blanket at a party.
Sometimes, the silence, avoidance, or discomfort we encounter in social situations is selfishness on the part of the non-bereaved-it takes time and effort to deal lovingly with the grieving. But, mostly, it’s just ignorance and fear. I know this because I used to be one of the uncomfortable ones.
Even when someone really does try to help us in our grief, it is likely they will say the wrong thing anyway. When I am in the depths of grieving, or just plain sad, it is difficult to explain what I am feeling without saying the wrong thing myself. I know it is very probable I will leave my listening friend with a totally wrong idea of what I am experiencing at that moment. Being misunderstood compounds the pain and increases our sense of isolation. And so, I keep quiet. Sometimes I wish I could be invisible and not have to take part in the chit-chat that is intended to fill the dead air.
Nevertheless, I struggle with being annoyed with those who say and do nothing, and sorry for those who do try, but know they are falling short in their efforts. I can see the uneasiness on their face and I feel bad for them. There is just no person on Earth who can fix this no matter how badly they want to understand and help me.
So, it’s like this. Think of me as recovering from a horrible, traumatic injury for which I had to have emergency surgery under primitive conditions without anesthesia. Like an amputation with only a stick clenched in my teeth like during the Civil War. Under cannon fire with snipers all around and no cover. With a dull knife.
Or you can think of me as having survived a train wreck. You know the kind where the locomotive is steaming down the tracks and the travelers in the dining car are enjoying a wonderful meal with their family all around the cramped little table. At Christmastime.
And then the train approaches a bridge, a very high bridge, and you want to shout, “Stop the train!” But the train keeps going and, half-way across, the bridge begins to collapse. In slow motion. And there is no screaming, just falling. Silent falling. Then the survivors are dragged from the wreck in the gorge, the hungry gorge. And the injuries are horrendous. There are not enough bandages in all the world.
I am injured. I am alive, but I am injured and in a lot of pain, the walking wounded, though the wounds are not visible. And it isn’t hard for you to cause me additional pain without even realizing it.
Like when you kiss your little boy at the park and I see you do it and I remember. Or when you stand there behind the cash register at the hardware store, young and strong and smiling and very polite and handsome like my Hans.
Or when you do not seem to remember him at all. You have nothing to say about him, no memory of him to share with me so that I can know that he really did exist, and it is not just my imagination that I had a son.
I just love to hear his name spoken. I love to hear things that you remember about him.
So please be gentle with me. I cannot speak my feelings without losing it. My faith is strong, and God is good. But the pain is staggering. Do not ask me about that. Don’t ask me how I’m doing.