What to ask your grieving loved one instead of “How are you?”

How are you is probably the most common way to open a conversation in the English language but for someone who is grieving, it’s not a simple question to answer.

Living with grief is emotionally exhausting. The person you love could be feeling a million emotions a day and many all at the same time. Life can feel like a roller coaster. It’s very difficult to put that into words. So, here’s my advice: When you’re feeling like “how are you?” is what you want to say to your person, check in with yourself before you ask it.

Do you have the time and energy to be present with however they are feeling right now? Or are you just thinking about your person and want them to know?

If it’s the latter, make a statement instead of asking a question. You might try the following approaches:

  • “Hey, I love you.”
  • <a heart emoji>
  • “Thinking about you.”
  • <a hug emoji>
  • A GIF that conveys the message you’re trying to send.

If you’re hoping to open a conversation with your person because you have the time and energy to be with them in that moment, why not start with the basics? Ask a more specific question like:

  • Hi, I’m free for a little bit. Want to talk?
  • How are you at this moment?
  • Would you like some company right now?
  • Has anything felt good totay?
  • Were you able to get some sleep last night?
  • Have you been able to eat today?
  • How is your tissue supply?

Early in my loss a friend of mine got into the habit of simply texting me “Hi.” It’s nothing fancy but it was a signal that she was available and the floor was mine if I wanted to use it to rant or cry or share something good or funny. Sometimes I took the opportunity. Sometimes I didn’t and when that was the case my friend assured me that it didn’t hurt her feelings.

The lesson here is quite simple: Why are you asking “how are you?” Find the answer to that question for yourself and then act accordingly. Doing so is Grief Allyship in action; respecting your person’s experience of grief and the emotional labor that comes with sharing their unique experience with others. 

You can find this lesson and many many others inside Grief Ally: Helping People You Love Cope with Death, Loss, and Grief. which is available everywhere you can buy books (01.25.2023).

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