“How are you doing?” and Other Impossible Questions

We know how the customary greeting goes:

"How are you doing?"

"Fine, thanks. And you?"

"Just great, thanks!"

We just follow the script, hardly noticing that there is even a question being asked. Until we lose our partner.

Wait ... what?


The first week or so following Rod’s death, I was surrounded by family and friends. We told stories, laughed and cried together; we were all grieving. We were all there to support one another in that. If we were running low on a grocery item, someone just went out and got it. If something needed to be done at the house, or for the upcoming service, someone just did it. No one had to ask how I was or what I needed because they were there - they just knew.

It wasn’t long before traveling family and friends went home; even I left the country (only 10 days after Rod’s death) on a trip we were supposed to go on together. I got back only 10 days before Christmas; my local friends were in full holiday swing by then.

The holidays came and went, and a new year was ushered in. People got back to their lives and their routines; they no longer 'just knew' how I was doing or what I needed. So, nstead of hearing “I’m going to the store; can I pick up some bread and toilet paper for you?” or “What day can we get together for lunch this week?” or “When can I mow your yard for you?” people simply started to ask, “How are you?” or “What do you need?” (I’ll get to this one in a minute…)

Before I go any further, I want to say that I totally understand that I am not the center of anyone else’s world, and it's not their responsibility to stay in my shadow. Many folks did check in on me fairly regularly at first, and several continued to stay in my world beyond that, enough to just know. I wouldn’t have made it without them, and I am filled with gratitude for their love and efforts to care for me in those early weeks and months.

But I gotta tell ya … “How are you doing?” was the question from hell in those early days and months.

Here’s what went through my head in that awkward silence between its asking and my responding.

First, there was the sarcastic answer: “My husband’s dead. How do you think I’m doing?” Of course, this response was never vocalized because it was not deserved (and, well, it was just rude). I realized that the person asking was probably coming from a place of genuine concern, and had no clue how else to start a conversation or gage how said conversation might proceed.

Next came a whole slew of questions of my own … all in my head.

Do you mean how am I doing … emotionally, in my grieving process?

Are you looking for a report of my grief to see how I'm coming along? Is there some standard you will measure my answer up against to determine whether or not you should be worried about me? What will you do if my answer isn't 'right'? Well, I’m still grieving. Does that help?

Do you mean how am I doing … physically; like if I’m sleeping well (or at all) or eating (at all)?

Well, I’m dressed. I don’t hear my tummy growling, so I must have eaten something recently. And I’m here, listening to you ask me *that* question. So you could say I’m functioning. How well I’m functioning - how I am managing getting dressed and showing up - is a different question altogether. Is that the one you were asking - how am I functioning?

Do you mean how am I doing … financially?

Since it is socially impolite to ask anyone about their money situation even in the best of times, I can probably conclude that this is not the question they had in mind. But if you were genuinely concerned about my financial well-being, seeing as how my main source of income has suddenly stopped, I’m sure I’d have a story to tell. (I actually got this specific question asked, exactly once.)

Do you mean how am I doing … practically, as in the day to day operations of running a home? Hmm … this one could take a minute. You see, I’m no longer in the habit of assessing my surroundings - home maintenance or supplies, oil change on my car, etc. I’m just trying to remember to brush my teeth and feed the dog, so I’m not sure I even have an answer to this particular question.

By this time, the awkward silence and blank stare had become uncomfortable, so I had to decide which interpretation of this question I was going to answer.

So began another rabbit trail in my head.

What’s my relationship with the asker? How long have we known each other? Are we the backdoor/pajamas kind of friends, or do we have polite exchanges at events or social gatherings?

What is our current venue? Are we having lunch so we have time to explore a real answer, or at least figure out which question you are actually asking? Or is it after church when we’ve all got 15 minutes after the service to get the kids and talk to everyone we haven’t seen in a week?

What’s my emotional state right now? Are my emotions just under the surface, looking for an excuse to burst out of my face, or am I having a more stable day ... or moment?

Yeah, it was that complicated. And usually ended with

“I’m fine.”


Then there’s my second least favorite question: “What do you need?”

In the very early weeks and months, a single answer raged in my mind every time I heard this question: “Are you freaking kidding me? I need my husband. Think you can help me with that? I didn’t think so. You can go back to yours now. Thanks.” Once again, this gut-reaction is neither nice nor warranted as this question was usually asked by someone who truly did care - and would do anything, including bringing Rod back, if it were within their power to do so - coupled with a genuine desire to help and not knowing how.

Again, despite my silent mental outburst, I am grateful that I had people close enough to me who cared enough to ask; and their presence meant more to me than words.

You would think the best person to ask what they need is the person who you intend to help. But we’re a strange bunch, us husbandless women (because we hate the “W” word), and we are the last ones to know what we need. Well, at least the needs that another person, other than our person, could meet.

Most of the needs we are aware of in those early stages are up in our heads and at the core of our being. We are overwhelmed by simply existing, and just trying to keep our crap together. We are not paying much attention to things like whether we have enough shampoo or clean clothes. We just deal with those things when they become problems; there’s no anticipating, no planning, no getting ahead of the game here. Forget getting ahead, we’re pretty much living behind the eight ball as far as these things go for a while.

From my current vantage point, almost seven years out, I see that what I needed was for people to pay attention to things I did not have the capacity to pay attention to.

If you wonder if your widow friend has food in the house, pick up a few extra things next time you go to the store and drop them off for her. It doesn’t really matter what it is - if you’re friends, and you’re buying it for your family, chances are good that she'd need it, too. Or make a little extra of whatever you’re making for your family or dinner and freeze some for her. Once you have a few single serve dishes, bring them over. Frozen meals are a god-send. It’s harder than you know to cook for one. Or at all. Or just show up with a pizza or chinese food and share a meal with her. (If we’re still under pandemic constraints, order take out for her, call or text her to let her know it’s coming, then spend a few minutes visiting with her virtually until it arrives.)

If you wonder if she could use some help around the house, tell her you’re coming over this weekend to do yard work or after work on Thursday to help with laundry. Don’t ask her if she’d like you to come over; given the option she’ll probably say no because she doesn’t want to inconvenience you (she might be a little embarrassed by how far she's let things go). While you’re there, look around. If you see something that you’d take care of at your house, you might say “I’d like to empty your dishwasher or sweep the kitchen floor, if that’s ok with you.” It's much easier for her to process this type of specific request, and, since you’re already there, she’ll know you won’t be inconvenienced by that extra thing.

If there’s a new movie coming out that you are going to see, ask her to come along. If there’s a church or community event you are attending, see if she’d like to ride with you. There may be some things that she’d like to do, but won’t do alone. And she probably won’t ask you because she understands that your schedule doesn’t revolve around her, and that you already have someone to go with.

What I needed was for people to let me know that they’d noticed something (this told me I was seen) and a specific way they wanted to help (this let me know that I was worth their time).

What I needed was presence and patience. I was as lost in answering this question as my people were in asking it, but I am forever grateful for those who stayed with me and continued to ask.

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