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“What do I say when I’m asked, how are you?” | The Bereaved | Part 2

by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

What do I say when asked, “How Are You?”

I don’t know what to say when asked, “How are you?” I appreciate people asking about me, and I am unsure how to respond. I don’t always want to talk about my grief …but sometimes I do. When I’m focused on doing my job, I don’t always want to talk about my pain. I sometimes avoid people in the grocery store, so I don’t have to answer that question again. What do I say, and how do I respond? These are some of the struggles and questions the bereaved have asked.

Bereaved Response to How Are You?

One bereaved shared that they responded to this question by somewhat avoiding it. They were always asked at the grocery store in the small community where they lived, how are you? The person said I was getting tired of the looks and the questions, and I decided to go grocery shop in a different community where they did not live. Another bereaved stated that while at work, co-workers ask, “How are you?” and they don’t want to be rude because they appreciate people’s concern – even a year after the death, but they also said at that point, they wanted to focus on their work. 

Understanding Grief

Grief is a unique, personal process by which a mourner attempts to adapt and adjust to a life without their particular person in it. Some grievers respond with emotions, including a range of painful emotions. This type of griever noted as an Intuitive griever (Doka and Martin 2010), finds solace from sharing their experience with others and venting emotions while receiving support from others. The intuitive griever can be described as one who “talks it out.” An instrumental griever places greater focus on cognition while experiencing difficult emotions. They tend to maintain control over emotions and “think things through.” Instead of “talking about their grief,” they would instead work it out. There is also a dissonant pattern of grieving in which the individual is “at war” with themselves, making it more difficult to adjust to the loss. Understanding how we grieve can help us respond to the question.

For the Bereaved

How do you answer the question, how are you? From the multiple conversations held with the bereaved, I find the answer seems to be that it depends. It depends on how you grieve; what is your grieving style? It depends upon where you are and whether you can speak freely or not. It depends on how much you want to share with the person asking. It depends on whether your location is where you feel safe as the tears start to flow. It depends upon whether you want to share at that time or whether you want to focus on the task at hand.  

The Hospice Foundation of America offers a brief grief article titled:  The Dumb Things People Say, which provides some tips on responding to what people say to offer support. It can serve as a model for further conversation.  

The other day, while walking in a public hallway, I was asked, “How are you?” after a recent death. My loss was so new and fresh that I knew I would have an emotional response. After the hug, and as I started telling the story of the death, tears rolled down my face. I didn’t care. The genuine concern, the time given, the attention, and trying to provide privacy from other eyes in the hallway provided some solace in my pain. Knowing I could reach out to the person at any time gave me a sense of comfort and a little control. One more hug, and we went our separate ways.  

As the bereaved, what do you want to convey when asked, how are you? Where/when? What are some things you might say?

  • Maybe you can come up with the same response for each person who asks, something like: “I’m taking it day by day.” Keep it truthful. You don’t have to say more. “Thanks for asking. I’m doing the best I can today.”  
  • I appreciate you asking, but I’d prefer not to discuss this today. (Is this rude/dismissing?)
  • Avoiding…. (How does avoiding family, friends, or co-workers feel? If they are not the ones to best support you now, how do you say that?)

Only we, the bereaved, can help others understand what we need to help us cope with our loss… whether talking about it, going to the gym to sweat it out, or just trying to do our jobs amid the loss. Know and understand what helps you cope with your grief. Finally, recognize the best of intentions from the person who asks, “How are you?”  


“The Dumb Things People Say”. Developed from Journeys with Grief: A Collection of Articles about Love, Life, and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., MDiv., copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2012, accessed 3/7/24.

Gamino, Louis A., Sewell, Kenneth W., Prosser-Dodds, Lisa, Hogan, Nancy S. “Intuitive and Instrumental Grief: A Study of the Reliability and Validity of the Grief Pattern Inventory.” OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying Volume 81, Issue 4, Sage Publishing, September 2020, Pages 532-550, DOI: 10.1177/0030222818786403, accessed 3/7/2024.

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