NOTIONS: Time to ponder the proverbial, ‘How ARE you?’

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I went to the bookstore the other day to buy a condolence card. A friend’s mom had died. There weren’t many choices. Most offered poems or Bible verses that didn’t seem right for me or the recipient. So I chose the simplest card. It featured an abstract image of light breaking through darkness. Inside, it said, “Thinking of you with deepest sympathy.”

I was thinking of him. And the families of London bombing victims. And the widows, widowers and children of soldiers killed overseas. And Kelly, who lost her little niece. And Bob, whose son died of a brain tumor. And Mary, whose eyes were red with tears on the first anniversary of her dad’s death.

And, yes, I was thinking of myself. And how much I’ve learned of grief since my wife, Pam, died in March. And how little I understood before. And how inadequate our language, culture and customs are for dealing with death and its cousin, love.

My editor explained well what’s transpired when she wrote: “I know there’s a tendency for people to rush in with casseroles the first couple of weeks and then assume everything is back to normal, even though it can’t be.”

No, it can’t. Nor ever will. But what’s “normal” anyway, in this life ever-changing?

Yes, the onslaught of cards and casseroles tapers off into an eerily silent house, a mailbox full of medical bills, and a trickle of invitations to welcome and well-meaning pity parties.

And mostly, nearly every conversation-in person or on the phone-begins with The Question.

“How ARE you?” people ask. And you’re never quite certain whether they’re being polite or whether they really want to know.

My friend Ken Reed, who’s published a series called “Healing Through Grieving: Learning to Live Again,” said he got The Question for years after his wife died.

So one day, when a fellow asked, “How ARE you?” Ken gave him the honest answer-all the sorrow and anger, disbelief and confusion, distraction, loneliness and hope. Well, Ken said, it wasn’t long before the fellow started rocking back and forth, glancing at his watch, looking for a chance to escape.

In “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis describes well our discomfort with grieving and grievers.

“I cannot talk to the children about her,” Lewis writes of his late wife. “The moment I try, there appears on their faces neither grief, nor love, nor fear, nor pity, but the most fatal of all non-conductors, embarrassment. They look as if I were committing an indecency. They are longing for me to stop. I felt just the same after my own mother’s death when my father mentioned her. I can’t blame them. It’s the way boys are.

“It isn’t only the boys, either. An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not.” I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.

“To some, I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair, I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.'”

So mostly, when folks ask The Question, they want the short answer. “I’m fine.” Or “I’m OK.” Or “I’m doing well-really.” (The latter often is met with quizzical disbelief).

Because people in our society-especially men-struggle to share their feelings about grief, much goes unsaid. Pam’s sister, Carrie, and her family just visited me. Naturally, we both miss Pam, but with the kids around, we left that moose on the table until I opened the door with a follow-up e-mail.

“Did I tell you I miss your big sister?” I said in a postscript.

Carrie replied, “As we walked around the city, the canal and stayed in your house, I kept having flashbacks: Pedal boating on Mother’s Day, talking to her about dying, speaking at the service. I wasn’t prepared for how many ‘triggers’ there would be for me. God, how do you survive?”

Well, like a good American male, I bottle it up inside, and compartmentalize and change the subject when asked “The Question.” But every once in a while, I’ll write something down, or-better yet-let a dear friend who’s not embarrassed by my answers pry out of me how I’m feeling.

And sometimes, I let others speak for me. Novelists are good at that. And screenwriters. And musicians.

The other day, singer/songwriter Damien Rice answered well my evolving answer to The Question, and how I survive the occasional triggers of grief. On the stereo in my empty living room, he sang:

And so it is

Just like you said it would be

Life goes easy on me

Most of the time.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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