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.