Why is “How are you?” a damaging question to ask someone who is grieving? Well, let’s think about it from the griever’s perspective. The truth is they may feel some, or all, of the following:
Shock, Loneliness, Anger, Sadness, Depression, Frustration, Guilt, Sorrow, Headaches, Exhaustion, Sleep deprivation, Tightness in chest, Loss of focus, Nausea…
Instead of answering truthfully with any of the above responses, the griever will “lie” to be considerate of the person asking the loaded question, “How are you?” That selfless lie will make the griever feel much worse because they will resent having to mask their true emotions. Although, lying is the best option because speaking the truth will only lead to more awkwardness in a brief period of interaction.
So instead of creating this downward spiral for the person, be empathetic to the true emotions they may be feeling and ask intentional (not open ended) questions or offer something (help, a compliment, or nonjudgmental listening ear). Here are some ideas to consider, you can be as creative as you’d like considering your relationship with the person:
Help with a task or project – and be upfront, “I’m sure you have a lot on your mind, let me help you with ______ to make life a little easier.”
Make a care package that is helpful and useful, with a simple note: “Thinking of you…”
Offer a break away –lunch outside of the office or a quick walk outside.
At the very least acknowledging their grief with simply saying “I’m sorry for your loss” is always appropriate to show support and respect for their loved one. But please, please do not ask “How are you?” now knowing the only thing way they can respond is with a lie.