Responding to “How are you?” & why I was grateful that widows no longer wear black.
Exchanging simple every day greetings of “Hello and how are you?” often felt excruciating when I was caring for my husband as he was dying and then when I was recently widowed and intensely grieving.
I realised that for most people it was just an automatic way to acknowledge one another but for me the question became heavily significant. I felt inauthentic (when I was full of intense emotions such as fear and sadness) to respond with answers of “Good thanks” or ‘Fine thank you.”
I developed a few ways of responding that made me feel more true to how my heart and body felt. What I did was – never actually answer the question but deflect by saying something such as: “Hello! It is a lovely sunny day isn’t it?” Or “Hello, How are you?”
Such responses were sufficient for people in the street, at a shop counter or at school drop off – but for dear friends I would sometimes be a little more honest. I would say “I’m hanging in there” or “not too bad”. Then they would sensitively follow up later when my young children were out of earshot so that they could ask me how I was really doing.
Over time I recognised that I could use my physical and emotional response to the simple innocent question of “how are you’ as my own personal visceral barometer to measure how I was faring that day and that moment. Tell tale signs that it was going to be a tough day requiring greater self compassion included:
- a constriction of my throat, my muscles, knots in my stomach and a feeling of heavy hands pushing my shoulders downwards as if trying to push me deep into the ground.
- A sense of shock that other people felt so light hearted and joyous when I was feeling so heavy.
Listening to these signals I would re-schedule my plans for the day (if I could) so that I could have some quiet time, be with the emotions I was feeling and hopefully let them pass.
I often wondered if it would be easier to wear black or at least a black arm band on such days. Or if it would be easier to be part of a small village where everybody already knew my story. Then they would understand why I was brusque, monotone in my response or hiding behind a cap and dark glasses.
But then I would look at my young children who would move from tears to joy within minutes as they explored and enjoyed each moment of the day. They moved from light to dark to light all the time. I did not want to always be a Dark Cloud of a mother always in mourning and modelling constant darkness. My husband would not want that.
Given our circumstances, it was okay for my kids to see that sometimes I was sad and worried. But it was also important for them to see me laugh or at least enjoying small moments, for them to see me connecting with life not withdrawing.
My young children watched their father fade and then lost him to brain cancer. It was important for our children to see frequent glimmers of their true mother. Behind the anxious carer and grieving widow was a woman who loved bright colours, who loved to laugh and to connect with people. This was the lady that their father fell in love with – the woman he chose to be the mother of his children.
So – I was grateful that it is no longer convention to wear black when you are in mourning. It was so much better for me and my children that I kept wearing colour and tried to engage politely and positively with people whenever I could.