There’s a delicate balance between supporting someone and being annoying.
As a species we humans often want to ask dumb questions when we’re trying to find ways to support people. I realize it’s a social norm, but it’s time that changed. We need to think much more carefully about how we respond when people experience trauma, difficulty or loss. It’s time to flip the script so we’re habitually more caring and supportive and a whole lot less annoying.
A friend’s 18 year old nephew was recently killed in a car accident, and she was telling me how everyone kept asking her sister (who had just lost her son), “How are you doing?” What kind of an answer do we really expect to get from that question? When you think about it, it is a stupid question. The answer is obviously, “I’m terrible. I just lost my son. I’m walking through loss and grief and sorrow and helplessness that you, who are not, cannot fully understand. I want to cry all the time. When I’m not crying I’m wondering how I’ll ever feel normal again.”
What we really mean when we ask, “How are you doing?” to someone who experienced loss, is struggling with medical diagnosis, or is being forced to deal with some other traumatic life event is some subset or combination of, “I care about you. My heart goes out to you. I can’t fully comprehend what you are going through, but I imagine it is extremely difficult. I empathize with what you’re going through. I want to support you however I can. Perhaps you’re not sure in this moment how I can support you, but please know that whenever something comes to mind I want you to call or text me and let me know what it is. I want to be here for you.”
So the next time you find yourself about to ask someone who is clearly suffering, “How are you doing?”, think again. Find another way to show them you support them.
If you’ve been asked a stupid question that really means, “I want to support you”, I’d love to hear your suggestions for what people might say in such situations to actually show their support.