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“I don’t know what to say, other than how are you?” | The Supporter | Part 1

By Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC

“How are you” is a general question we tend to ask quite casually. We use it as a conversation starter or simply as a way to acknowledge the other, “Hi, how are you?” When someone dies, we use that exact phrase to ask how the bereaved is. What though, are we really asking, when we ask the bereaved, “How are you?”

“How are you” is a way for an individual to offer some support to the bereaved in the form of compassion. By asking it, our assumption is that we are telling the bereaved that they are not forgotten. There are some supporters who truly want to listen, and when they ask, “How are you?” they will give both time and attention to listening in an appropriate setting. An individual may sincerely ask the question, wanting to be a support, once the bereaved starts sharing their response beyond the phrase, “I’m fine,” the supporter finds themselves struggling, not knowing what to say, and excuses themselves quickly. There are also a number of supporters who will never ask the question because they don’t know what to do or say next. For them, listening may not be a skill they possess, and in the awkward silence that ensues, they think they need to say something, so they start talking about their own loss or trying to fix yours.

The bereaved have shared that they appreciate being asked, “How are you,” viewing it as a support that their pain is acknowledged and their loved one is not forgotten. At some point, though, it can generate awkwardness, as the bereaved struggles to focus on the process of renewing and rebuilding their life, adapting to a life without their loved one by going to work, taking care of family, and focusing on the tasks at hand. They may not know how to answer that broad question and find themselves fumbling with how to answer, all the while not wanting to be rude to the supporter.

Learning to be a better supporter by either changing the question or changing our habits can make all the difference to the bereaved. If we are clearer with our question and sincerely want to listen and inform the bereaved that we have the time… it can go a long way for those whose hearts are broken. Research has shown that some questions are more helpful to the bereaved, and will serve us better than “How are you.” The Dougy Center offers this handout to help us out:  What to Say Instead. They suggest rather than asking, how are you, perhaps another response can be:  How is your grief affecting you lately? 

The National Alliance for Children’s Grief created a campaign to provide information and education on the importance of acknowledging and supporting grieving children and their families, called Flip the Script.  Flip the Script references a shift in perspective or a change in the way a situation is typically handled. We know that many of the traditional expressions of sympathy can be unhelpful or even hurtful to grievers. Consider this resource to inform, encourage, and support individuals in this journey of grief language transformation. Instead of saying, “I completely get what you’re going through” consider this alternative, “Grief is different for everyone. What has it been like for you?”

Before asking the bereaved any question as you try to offer comfort, be sure that you have a plan, (1)that you are a listener(which entails that you try to create space for someone to talk about their experience rather than trying to fix, change, or take away their pain) and (2)that you have the time or have a plan to take the time for the bereaved if it is not convenient for the bereaved to share at that immediate time. Finally, think about how you might feel if your loved one died, and someone asked you at work or the grocery store, “How are you?”

Continue to offer comfort to the bereaved and recognize there are better ways and places of doing so. We can all learn more helpful ways of asking, “How are you.”

Part 2, coming March 2024, for the Bereaved: “Now what do I say, they asked me how I am?”


The Dougy Center
Toolkits to Support Grieving Children & Families

National Alliance on Children’s Grief

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