August 30, 2022

The Four-Word Question that Triggers my Grieving Heart.

I’m a bit ashamed about how many messages I’ve let go unanswered in my texts and Direct Messages.

Well-meaning friends and acquaintances check in, often, sweetly, with a simple question—

“How are you doing?”

…not knowing that those four words trigger anxiety and overwhelm in my state of acute grief and new-to-me bouts of depression.

That simple four word question has become more uncomfortable for me to answer than intimate queries.

In most instances, I’d prefer discussing my insecurities, sexual history, or some cringey thing I did in high school or before getting sober.

Anything but those four words.

Reading them again and again, my heavy heart thunders anew in my ears and mind. That familiar hot, sinking feeling hits my chest, yet again, as shortened breaths from quickened exhales leave my body stuck in tension.

 

Losing my 7-year-old son has ripped the rug, floor and entire Earth out from under my feet. I feel as though I’m in free-fall. Sometimes I’m floating, sometimes I’m falling so fast the feeling of my wavy red hair whipping across my face seems almost real.

The answer to,

“How are you doing?,”

…is anything but simple. It’s loaded. Complicated. And it changes day-to-day, hour-by-hour, and often minute-by-minute. As someone who has made caring for my physical and mental health the highest priority for years, it’s hard to admit that

I’m not doing well.

And it’s even more difficult to muster an insincere, disingenuous

“I’m alright, how are you?”

So, to my discomfort, I tend to not reply.

Since a few years back when confronting my unhealthy relationship with looking on the bright side—aka toxic positivity—this four-word question has grated on my nerves. Everyone from the neighbor we’ve met only a handful of times to the cashier at the local hardware store persists with wondering how we’re doing. Then awkwardly pauses, avoiding eye contact, when the answer is anything less than

“Good!”

In my situation, I know those who ask are genuinely concerned and doing so out of wanting to be supportive. They likely want to be there for me, or help me feel better in some way. Because I’m clearly not “good” or “fine.”

Social media allows for us to connect and engage through photos and thoughts in varying moments of time. I tend to intentionally share a blend of high points and low points. Ranging from recent adventures exploring coastal beaches and hiking trails with my husband and golden retriever-mix in our new home of the Pacific Northwest, to deep musings about missing my son and about being his mom. It’s genuine, but still it only shows a small glimpse into my life.

When those who see these shared, curated moments are kind enough to follow up directly by simply asking “how I’m doing,” I long for concise words to convey the disastrous, erratic mess my life has become—feeling overwhelmed by the task of articulating a picture of my troubled reality. Fear that I will be too dark or vulnerable, be unfairly judged, share in a way that would disappoint or open me up for unsolicited (often detrimental) advice. And yes, that shamey fear that they’ll take offense at my lack of response and stop reaching out.

 

I wonder if they want me to share how once a week since we moved from the home where Leo passed away in our arms, I wake up overnight thinking I hear him crying. Only to realize, he’s not here. And neither is his room. I can no longer get out of bed to stand by his empty crib, even if I wanted to.

Followed by crying myself back to sleep.

I wonder if they want to know how the abundance of travel and outdoor adventure we’ve experienced since our son’s death fills our cups…in the moment. Followed immediately by a palpable feeling of that joy seeping through a long, narrow crack in our hearts as we make our way home. Our chests feel hollow again as we turn the key in our front door.

I wonder what they would think if I mentioned the dark, intrusive thoughts that pop into my mind. Wishing we could have all gone together. And instead, having to settle for the reality of living without the light of our life. Summoning the urge to escape to places where I can scream into the darkness, where nobody else can hear me.

This guttural reaction may also be coming from the nine months of weekly sessions on my therapist’s avocado green sofa, all starting with her warm Polish accent pondering, yes,

“How are you doing?”

Where, in this space and relationship, I was able to candidly express just how fine and not fine I was over the entire hour. Making great progress in navigating these extra-tumultuous seas, going from the mom of a terminally ill child fearlessly living for today to a bereaved parent not knowing what her tomorrows look like.

Grief—of all kinds—is exhausting, unfamiliar, personal and often traumatizing. It’s messy and terrible, yet can be beautiful, too.

Being thoughtful, kind, complementary and engaging with specifics helps.

Reach out, but be intentional. Be patient. And after a while, maybe even try again, in a new way.

And please remember to not take our silence personally.

We’re doing our best.

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