You’re Okay, I’m Not Okay

What do I say to the person who asks, “How are you doing?” The question is such a reflexive conversational device. People ask without even thinking. Most of them listen to the reply without really hearing what you are saying, they are already thinking about what they will say next. Casual conversation is usually like that. My answer depends on who is asking, and really, it shouldn’t. I recently heard a radio story about a young married couple, she is Russian, he American, and they were discussing the cultural differences in the response to this very question.

The Americans will tend to gloss over their feelings, and reply, “I’m okay”, no matter how they actually are. The Russians on the other hand are more inclined to let you know how they really feel, whether you want to hear it or not. The husband said, (and I paraphrase here because I can’t find the original story), “If someone tells me ‘I am terribly sad’, I have to respect that.” The key word here is ‘have’. He didn’t necessarily like being sucked into someone else’s angst. He was learning to deal with his wife’s family’s frankness, and she, his family’s reluctance to express their feelings.

So, do I answer that question like an American or a Russian? I do have Russian ancestry, so I guess the choice is mine. If the asker is someone who doesn’t know me, the cashier at the grocery store, or the waitress in the Mexican restaurant we ate at the other night for example, I will most probably respond with the “Oh, I’m okay” version. If I truly tell them how I am feeling (I am terribly sad), I then have to explain, the conversation can get uncomfortable, and I don’t really want to spend ten minutes reciting my litany of sorrow to a stranger, so I choose the path of least resistance. As do most of us.

Occasionally, I contemplate giving the honest answer; “I am terribly sad”. I wonder how the other person would react. I sometimes feel a little hypocritical just saying, “Fine”, when really I am not. I normally don’t have the energy to go into the details of why I am not “fine”, will not be “fine” for a long while, if ever. And I suspect the recipient of my honesty doesn’t really want to know how I am, they’re just asking for politeness’ sake. I guess if I had nothing pressing and wanted to really bum someone out, I could tell my story and see how they would react. Might be a worthwhile subject for a psychology research project, if it already hasn’t been.

If it is a casual acquaintance, who may know of Jake’s passing, I sometimes tell them I am doing a little better, and in fact, there are times when I am. A little better. Usually my answer is “Oh, you know, day by day”. They make a sympathetic face, nod knowingly, even thought they haven’t a clue, and might offer one of those wonderful platitudes I am so fond of. Really it is moment-by-moment, but again, I don’t want to get into a prickly discussion with a well-meaning friend who just doesn’t know how to act. Very few people truly do know how to act in the face of this kind of sorrow. It is not something we teach, not something we talk about, it is not a cause for celebrity endorsement. Can you imagine a “Grief Telethon”? Who would contribute?

Our close friends ask this question too, but most of them apologize just as quickly for asking. As I said, it is a reflex, and most of us speak without thinking. I joke with them and tell them I am going to get a big button made that says “Don’t Ask Me How I Am”, and wear it to remind them. To those folks, I can offer a meaningful reply; can really let them know how I am feeling at the moment. While they don’t understand, can’t really comprehend what I am feeling, they empathize with me, and their concern touches me deeply. I am grateful to have such friends in my life.

The truth is that I am not okay, far from it. I may look all right; my walk-around mask is pretty good. For the most part, I function reasonably well; manage to get through the days without collapsing in choking sobs of sorrow. But I am running on half a heart, half a brain. I forget things, (even more than usual), wonder what it is that I have to do. I fight off the waves of pain and anguish that lie in wait. I have learned not to think about certain  things, not to utter certain specific words that invariably bring on the tears. Pictures come to mind that have that power over me, I do my best to block them out before I dissolve. In spite of my best efforts, I am not always successful in staving off the spasms. They overtake me indiscriminately wherever and whenever they please, without mercy. I just have to ride them out. Sometimes they last longer than others, sometimes more acute, sometimes just a flash, a not-so-gentle reminder of the unspeakable torment that simmers below the surface

I question everything. I wonder what I would be doing right now, if Jake hadn’t died. For one thing, I wouldn’t be sitting here in this peaceful cabin outside the lovely little town of Ojai, California, on this gorgeous Saturday afternoon writing this. How different life would be. And the irony is that life would be the same as the ‘before’. Back then it was just unremarkable day-to-day living, with all the joys, frustrations, headaches, and happiness we once took for granted. Now, I long for the unremarkable, for the life where things made sense. I still run through the what if’s. What if I had done this or that, hadn’t done this or that. It is a pointless and futile exercise, but I can’t help it. I ask myself in what direction do I go now? What is it that I am supposed to do, and why? I used to know; much of what I did was for my son, both directly and indirectly. Now I no longer have that reason. So what’s next?

I am resigning myself to the fact that there will never be a day where I am truly okay. There will always be something missing from my life. I will get better at coping, my mask will get more convincing, easier to wear. In the meantime, I will answer that question, “How are you doing?” as need dictates. If my answer makes you uncomfortable, so be it. I have nothing to apologize for.

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About edcol52

The Infinite Fountain of Love and Loss flows unceasingly into the pool of memory and sorrow. I created this blog in response to the most dreadful tragedy every parent fears, the death of a child, our 24 year old son, Jake. We are now on an unimagined journey along this road of grief and recovery. If you can find some comfort within these pages, than I will have succeeded in some small measure.
This entry was posted in Coping, Daily Ramblings, Friends and Family, Grief, Jake Colman, Sadness, Support and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to You’re Okay, I’m Not Okay

  1. Denise says:

    When Philip first died, I was a walking zombie. As I was paying for groceries, I’d tell the cashier that my son died. The horror. It’s two years now; I don’t tell everyone. But the other day, I went to get gas the man who pumped it (this is NJ, we don’t pump our own) came to talk to me. I started to cry, told him my son died. Know what he did? He asked if I had a picture. What a kind man; and I’m thinking about what you wrote, because he’s from a different culture.

    People don’t know what to do, what to say. I still find it hard to believe that people can look at me and not know what I’m going through, not know that Philip is always on my mind, that I carry this terrible grief. But of course they don’t – this is my life, not theirs. So I come to my blog because it’s my sacred space with Philip, and through it – and him – I meet people who understand, and who care. And for those who “understand,” I am so sorry; and for those who care, I’m grateful.

    I’m thinking of you; I know you’re suffering. And I do care – I wish peace for you and your family.

    • edcol52 says:

      Thank you for your kind thoughts. I know you understand, and for that I am truly sorry. There are caring people out there too, I am glad you can find them. We all make it as best we can. As someone who has gone before me, your insights are welcome and deeply moving. Thank you for your eloquence and courage in posting what you do. Be well.

  2. I remember going back to work p/t in those early weeks in a very dazed and confused state of mind. When someone asked me how I was doing, I could not answer. If I knew the person, I would just shake my head. If I didn’t, I ignored the question. After 7 months, I am now able to say ok or mumble when a stranger asks, but nothing could be further from the truth. As for the response I give to the people I know, well, they don’t “get it”. How could they? They are so lucky…

  3. edcol52 says:

    I’ll send you a “Don’t Ask Me How I Am” button when I get them made. Hang in there, Dee.

  4. grahamforeverinmyheart says:

    Now that’s a button that we all need!
    When I first returned to work I asked a friendly colleague to please NOT ask me how I was. He was flustered, so I told him he could ask him how my day was going…I could handle that question. Since that time I think he has forgotten and is always asking if I’m “good” or if I’m “okay”. I recognize that he is really just trying to be nice to me, so I just nod and tell him I’m okay. Of course, I’m not okay. I’m heartbroken. But no one wants to hear that answer. Most people are quite uncomfortable with the brutal truth, so I just remind myself that my misery is not their doing and they have a right to remain ignorant.

  5. Patti says:

    I would just say: Holding my own as well as I can! ❤ Love you Eddie!

  6. edcol52 says:

    I realized that I will never again be able to say, “Excellent! or Great!” as I used to in response to “How are you?” That realization made me terribly sad.
    Just the other day, when asked that now unbearable question, “How are you?” Saying, “OK” was not enough for the questioner. “Just OK?” was her reply. Little did she know that “just OK” is huge in my world these days, especially when said as a platitude. A part of me wanted to lash out, the other part just didn’t have the energy.
    Yes, really needed that button.

  7. DW says:

    It’s almost a year since you made this post, which was on the 1st anniversary of my daughter’s death. My own experience with a specific Russian, one who immigrated to the US perhaps 15 years ago, has been very different. I’ll add that my own ancestry is half Russian as both of my father’s parents immigrated to the US around WWI. The particular Russian woman I am thinking of has kept telling me that I must “be strong.” Once she approached me while I was in a meeting at my shul, about two or three months after my daughter’s death, asking how I was. Could I really answer while I was at a table with a group of others? So I said, “About the same.’ That was the best I could do. Later she called me at home to remind me I had other children and to be strong. I am rather proud that I was able to say that I am strong, and I am grieving. She still didn’t get it. We have had numerous interactions since and I can often see her frustration that I am not wearing the mask she wants me to wear. There have been other phone calls to my home with her insistance that I be strong, usually invoking my other children. I don’t think anyone knows how strong any parent is to survive the death of their child, to bear the incredible pain, and frankly to deal with the emotional ignorance of those who have never walked in our shoes. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to read and reply to your post.

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