What to say when "Fine, and you?" feels like a betrayal?
July 31, 2014 1:46 AM   Subscribe

I've had a truly awful year, and in April my much beloved pet died suddenly leaving me completely devastated with guilt and grief. Among the things I no longer seem to be able to do is answer the innocuous "How are you?" question from acquaintances and colleagues. Any suggestions?

It has been three and a half months since the death of my pet, so even if people know, most assume I'm over the loss by now. But I'm not. Not even close. I am trying to do what I can, but my heart is broken.

Obviously I know "how are you?" is not a real question but just saying, "fine, thanks" feels like I'm betraying my relationship. On the other hand, I certainly don't want to burden people or make them feel uncomfortable by detailing my actual state of mind.

Any suggestions about what to say? Ideally, I'd like something quick and snappy that acknowledges the loss. Or should I just resign myself to giving the standard response? In the past when things haven't been going well, I didn't mind giving the standard response because I didn't have the sense that I was letting anyone else down or trivializing a relationship, but this feels different. I'm sure this is a common issue for grieving people, but this is my first major loss.
posted by girl flaneur to Human Relations (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of "I'm fine" I sometimes say "I'm doing OK" when that is closer to the truth. You may not be fine, but you're getting through the day.
posted by bleep at 1:52 AM on July 31, 2014 [19 favorites]

What about "Oh, I'm holding it together" with a smile? Other person will assume you're joking, but you've accurately described the situation.

I'm so sorry for your loss and ongoing grief.
posted by third word on a random page at 1:58 AM on July 31, 2014 [7 favorites]

You could maybe say 'I'm coping, thanks' or 'I'm keeping on keeping on'.

Sorry to hear you're having such a rough time. Best wishes!
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:00 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might need someone to talk to who has also suffered the loss of a dear pet. People often feel they can't talk about their grief because, as you say, others might think they ought to be over it by now. Anyone who has lost a dear pet does know this is real grieving and will understand. People who think you ought to be over it by now leave you feeling very alone and not understood at a time when you actually need the support of friends. Save the real story for those who can relate and respond to the others with, "Fine, and you?"

You'll be respecting your relationship with that loved pet by not offering it up for inspection to those who can't understand. If you know someone who is an animal lover, ask the question, "Have you ever lost the best pet in the world?" and you will soon find someone who says, "OMG, yes, I know what that is like." Talk to that person.
posted by Anitanola at 2:03 AM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Doing the best I can", seems appropriate with what you're going through.

Honestly I would be inclined to say "I don't really want to talk about it", then move the conversation on to the next subject. I'm going through a huge nightmare myself, and I find that people can sense your pain and will stop asking if you sidestep the subject.

I'm so sorry you're going through such sorrow. I truly hope you have people who care to support you and comfort you, and that you start feeling a bit better soon.

Big hug to you.
posted by readygo at 2:19 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

'Fair to midling' was a great line an octogenerian I knew used :). I tend to think of how are you as being just an extended hello, a weird semi-fake convention.
posted by tanktop at 3:24 AM on July 31, 2014 [10 favorites]

I like "hanging in there." It's always true really
posted by Skadi at 3:28 AM on July 31, 2014 [27 favorites]

"Hanging in there" with the best smile I can do is what works for me.
posted by Mchelly at 4:02 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, my go to is "hanging in there." It's true enough that it doesn't feel like a lie, but breezy enough that it won't make people feel uncomfortable, and it doesn't necessarily invite further inquiry. There's also "taking it one day at a time."

And I'm really sorry about your pet. After three months, it makes sense that your grief would still be really fresh, although some non-animal people may not necessarily get that. It does get easier with time, but the loss of a beloved pet is also one of those things that I don't think you ever fully get over. Just last night I had a dream about a pet of mine that we had to put down two years ago, and I woke up in tears. It's always incredibly painful dealing with this kind of loss, and I'm sorry that you're going through this. Please give yourself all the time and space that you need to heal.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:43 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came in here to say "hanging in there" -- and it's nice to see so many of us on the same page. I spent a good year feeling the same as you do--that saying "I'm fine" or "ok, thanks" or somesuch was a betrayal of myself and my loss. "Hanging in there" works on its own...and then, if you want to open up a bit more (which sometimes I wanted to and sometimes I didn't) you can add, "I still think about my beloved pet often."

I think that, often, it's not that people really expect us to be over our losses, it's just that it's not their loss and it's not their world, so that it's easier for them to lose sight of it. But, once reminded, everyone I've ever opened up to in this slight way has always been kind and open to my pain.

And I'm so sorry for your loss. One day at a time.
posted by correcaminos at 4:49 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Hanging in there" is good, "doing okay" is good. But I encourage you to work on freeing yourself of the feeling that you're betraying anyone or anything or any principle, or trivializing what matters to you, if you say "Fine." It's fine to say "fine." How you talk to others about grieving does not define the kind of grief you feel, and the kind of grief you feel does not define the relationship. Any critter of any kind that loves you would want you to be good to yourself, and if that means saying "fine" when you're not fine because that's what you need that day, then I firmly believe that in the spiritual sense, that critter would wink at you and you would wink back, and it would lay a finger or paw or fin or tongue aside its nose or eye or tail and give you the secret signal that all was understood, and it would be okay.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:11 AM on July 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm very sorry for your loss. If you don't want to burden people who are just being polite, but also don't want to lie, I'd keep the tone as light as you can easily manage and say something like "Well, I've been better, I've been worse!"

(You mention you don't want to make people feel uncomfortable or burdened. If someone told me in a maudlin tone told me they were "hanging in there" I'd be very concerned about their welfare and mental state. [This may be a cultural difference. I'm not in the US and "hanging in there" makes me think of things that are much more serious than you probably want to convey e.g. "hanging on by a thread", having been "left hanging", "hanging on for dear life", etc].)
posted by bimbam at 5:26 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since it's not a real question, can you ignore the content but respond to the sentiment (which is just one of greeting)?

So when someone says "how are you doing?" you could respond with an "oh, hey, good to see you!" or some other generic greeting.
posted by spaltavian at 5:44 AM on July 31, 2014 [11 favorites]

This year I had cancer, and I had to put down my cat. I realized the other day that losing my cat was worse. I feel weird as hell saying that, but I think it's the truth: it was worse. Cancer was just being sick and terrified, for months. Losing my cat was unbearable, and I only bore it because I had no alternative. (I am not a big fan of 2014.) So, believe me, I get just how agonizing it can be to say goodbye to a pet.

But if you're talking to "acquaintances and colleagues," you're probably not going to be doing yourself or them much of a favor if you don't try to hide your grief away more.

To me "acquaintances and colleagues" means people you are passingly friendly with at work, and folks like that. With your loved ones, by all means talk about how you're struggling. But if Jane at work asks how you're doing, don't get into a thing about how your pet died in April and you're still hurting so much. It's just going to make her uncomfortable, and making her uncomfortable isn't good for either of you.

"Hanging in there" is fine. "OK" is fine. You don't have to smile like a Stepford Wife and gush about how you're just super, thanks for asking. But for the sake of avoiding a lot of awkwardness with your acquaintances, just shrug and say you're OK.

If you're not seeing a therapist, I really think you should. My suggestion has nothing to do with you grieving over an animal. I'd say this to somebody if they were still hurting like this over the loss of their mom last April. Like I said, the loss of my cat gutted me, but it's been a few months and now when people ask how I'm doing I can say I'm fine without the words catching in my throat. (I'm not fine, but I can say I am.) If you're still at a point where the little white lie of saying "I'm fine" feels like too much, I think you've got more lasting grief going on than anybody should have to handle on their own.

It's trite, but I try to remember: the fact that it hurts so much to lose your pet means that you had something very special. Try to feel grateful for ever knowing a love that deep.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:57 AM on July 31, 2014 [16 favorites]

I'm sorry you lost your pet. It's really painful to carry grief around when other people think you're over it, and I know what you mean about not wanting to burden people but not wanting to act in some way like you really are over it.

I tend to say "Good days and bad days, but I'm doing ok" which doesn't open up the conversation or make them feel uncomfortable - you're ending on the "I'm ok" bit, but conveys that I still have things going on and that way I don't feel I'm trivialising the loss. Take care of yourself.
posted by billiebee at 6:01 AM on July 31, 2014

I'm sorry for your loss.

The older folks I talk to often respond with things like 'I'm still kicking' and other pithy statements that acknowledge their ailments (physical and otherwise) without dropping painful or awkward details on anyone. And the humor doesn't hurt. Everyone half smiles or chuckles and moves on.

Nthing the advice to seek out other pet lovers who have felt the loss to talk to. I have a women where I work who still grieves her lost cat after a year and was a great comfort to another coworker who had to put down her dog. They were able to support each other.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:54 AM on July 31, 2014

I say 'Well, I'm still alive'.
posted by h00py at 6:58 AM on July 31, 2014 [3 favorites]

The question and answer are not communication. They're like throat-clearing, like answering a question by beginning with the word "Well." They're what gets the ball rolling. It's like the phrase "Dearly beloved" at the beginning of a wedding ceremony. It tips the first domino.

I used to take "How are you" as a real question. I answered "Not so hot" or "Fair-to-middling," which confused people who weren't even slightly interested in talking about my health or mood. It's no more meaningful than "Good morning."

Just give the expected answer, like a soldier returning a salute, and then begin the actual conversation.
posted by KRS at 7:02 AM on July 31, 2014 [5 favorites]

This isn't something that's appropriate to use for everyone, but for a certain class of acquaintance (people with whom I sometimes share personal details, but it might not be appropriate for this specific conversation) I grin and say "Don't ask if you don't want to know."

That gives them an easy opening to sidestep and say "haha I hear you, so what's going on with [Work Thing]?", but also the option to say "Oh no, what's wrong?" At which point you don't have to give them every last detail but you can say, oh, it's just been a really rough week at home; or it's been awhile, but I'm still really torn up about losing [Pet] ; or some other brief but truthful summary. This provides a second sidestep-branching point where acquaintance can acknowledge and move on, or proceed to further discussion.
posted by telepanda at 7:15 AM on July 31, 2014

I lost my dad about 6 months ago, and I know what you mean. For some time afterwards, I would reply "surviving" or "coping" or "hanging in there".

There are people who have the feeling that I'm"over it" at this point, which couldn't be less true. But I am at a point where I have good days and bad days, irrespective of my grief. You'll get there, too, and when you are, it won't mean that you don't love and miss your buddy.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:26 AM on July 31, 2014

"Not too bad!"

I'm so sorry about your loss.
posted by BibiRose at 7:50 AM on July 31, 2014

I lost my dog a little over a month ago. I miss my big guy a lot, but I'm okay. I really think you need to see a therapist if you're not already doing so. Grief can coexist with a high-functioning life. It's not that you should be "over it" by now, but more that it sounds like you're not doing well and you need help. I miss my dog, but I've stayed busy, my life is full, and I have other more pressing problems, like being broke as shit. That's not to say that I don't dream about him or want to talk to him or that everything's fine, but for the most part, I've made an effort to be as happy as I can be.

If it's guilt or fear of forgetting that's making you hold on, I'd like to remind you that your pet would like you to be happy. You can remember and honor your pet's memory and still live your life.

And yes, there's a difference between talking about this with friends and family, and answering meaningless pleasantries at the office. If my friend asks me if I'm hanging in there, I will actually answer. If my coworker says, "Hey, what's up?" I know that's not really a question.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 8:05 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Glad to see you," and then you ask what's been going on with them. If you're just getting through the conversation, try to focus on the other person and most people will be happy to pick up the slack. (Like everyone else, I'm sorry for your loss; since you're finding your grief is tinged with guilt, please think about speaking with a professional therapist or counselor.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:18 AM on July 31, 2014

My response after my Dad died was "Muddling through." Then add an "and you?" If you know something about them ask a specific question, most people would rather talk about themselves than listen then you can just put your brain in neutral and go "uh-huh".
posted by wwax at 8:30 AM on July 31, 2014

"Getting through."

You can say something that's not a lie, but gives people the option to inquire further if they are genuinely interested or leave it and move on. People are generally good at that.

You shouldn't have to feel guilty for having a shitty year, and I hope in some small way this AskMe helps.
posted by psoas at 8:43 AM on July 31, 2014

At times like that I just respond "I'm alive." Because it's true.
posted by Librarypt at 8:57 AM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have tried responding "Still above ground" in order to parry that moronic "How are you". Results have been mixed.
posted by Cranberry at 9:56 AM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Eh, could be worse."

That's always true, too.
posted by whuppy at 10:45 AM on July 31, 2014

I smile wryly and say, "Still breathin' in and out".
posted by miaou at 11:10 AM on July 31, 2014

Yeah, my grandfather says 'not dead yet'. When I was dealing with my dad dying I said 'trucking along' to people who didn't already know. When things were getting a little better I was 'getting there slowly'. These are all responses that can be read as 'fine'.
posted by kadia_a at 11:35 AM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

I second KRS. Nobody genuinely wants to know or hear the answer to that question. You are supposed to say "fine" no matter what happened or how you feel.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:30 PM on July 31, 2014

Wow, I feel like this every time someone asks me "how are you?". I never knew anyone else ever did. I hate that question. I feel like I am not betraying a pet, but my entire life, when I say I am fine. But I say it anyway. I have also said it when I've been sad about the loss of a pet or a specific event, but I feel like to be remotely honest would be committing a major faux pas, since people don't really want reality to enter into a conversation if it will make it awkward, and then you'll be hated. I also feel like something quick and snappy is even more of a betrayal because it really always sounds like one is making light of it whenever something is spoken about that way. I'd rather just hide it completely than do that. Also, not only do I say "I'm fine", but since I'm an American woman, I do so with a positive chirp to my voice, and a smile on my face ( It's tiring but I don't want to seem a bitch or anything).

Also, I've tried saying "I'm alright", or "I'm okay" as a less straining compromise, but I swear I often get weird or mildly pitying looks for no reason when I say that. People think you're weak. Anything less than being bursting with cheerfulness is thought of as "negative". So "okay" is out too.
posted by Blitz at 12:43 PM on July 31, 2014

Oh, I thought of something else: I hate being asked how I am when I am waiting on people at work. So it's become an evil game: the worse my day has been, the perkier I answer the question. Like my day has been LOVELY, THANK YOU! BEST DAY EVER!*

* hoo boy, has it not.

All people really want is you to be cheerful at them. Annoying, but that's how it is.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:54 PM on July 31, 2014

Person: "Hi, how are you?"
Me: "Hey! What's going on?"
Person: "Oh not much... [starts talking about real things]"

This has never not worked for me.
posted by the jam at 1:15 PM on July 31, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think if you really see basic greeting as a reminder of your trauma or a genuine question, you want to really talk about it and that desire is expressing yourself at an inappropriate time. Talk about your loss, but don't hint about it with Gerry from accounting.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 1:43 PM on July 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to say you're fine when you're not, can you live with saying you're decent? It's one of those words that people will probably hear however they want to, but you can have it mean what you want to you as well.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:13 PM on July 31, 2014

I just lost the cat who saved my life 3 1/2 days ago. Nothing is ever going to be the same again. I'm in bad shape. I'll be able to talk about this with my best friend anytime for years, but never with my ex-stepfather because I'd end up wanting to smack him. Pity those poor people who've never known love that deep, but they'll never understand and it is easier to accept their shortcomings and go on. Save the real stuff for the people who do understand.

Once I figured out that the "how are you doing" thing is just a social construct for initiating casual conversation, I started answering with truthy jokes, utter truth, and outright lies of social nicety or outrageousness. All dependant on situation and person asking. Luckily, I have a few people with whom I can be totally honest, and that helps when I have to deal with the others. I can often lie or soft-pedal when I know that I can later be honest with someone else. Sometimes it is just easier to grease the social wheels and go with the flow, then beat up some pillows or do some primal screaming later.

My answer today would probably be: "Well, I've lost one of my two reasons for living, I'm still allergic to sunlight, and the cable box is acting up, but hey, with enough Xanax at least I'm calm enough to talk to you. So what's up?" It does get all of the emotional stuff out of the way in a hurry whether you say it in a serious or humorous way. Usually from there you can steer things away from yourself because no one wants to go there.

I've had years to work on many situationally funny but essentially truthful ways of saying things that mean "I feel terrible but you won't understand or don't care and I don't feel like explaining so I'll make light of it so you leave it alone and get on with whatever you wanted to tell me." If I can manage it, a big smile and "Lousy, thanks. And you?" followed by "The usual, but I'll get through it" or "Just one of those days" works very well. I'm basically always having one of those days and I got tired of trying to pretend I wasn't. But I also openly call myself crazy and talk about mental health meds. It helps that I'm smiling when I say it and am totally non-threatening and non-confrontational.

Anyway, you could just be honest and say that you're still having trouble with your loss, but you're working on it and it helps to have that person be part of your life and go on with conversation. Still adjusting to life without him/her, but it is going ok. As long as you give a conversational cue that it is how you are doing, but not that you want to talk about it again, it takes the pressure off of the other person.

Sorry if this was a bit long, but I've been thinking about exactly this situation for a while. Thank you for asking the question so I could put it into somewhat coherent words. As inadequate as it feels to say because there are no words, I'm so sorry for your loss.
posted by monopas at 4:35 PM on July 31, 2014

I agree that "hanging in there" is a good response and it's one I have used myself. I cried at the thought or mention of my dear cat for at least 6 months after his death, and maybe more, and my friends knew it and my best friends didn't stop talking about him just because they were nervous around tears.

I've had several things in the last five or six years that appeared to the casual observer to be no big deal but if they were mentioned to me or if I was asked "how are you?" I would just crumple. You know what? I'm human. So are you. Human beings have things that really hurt them, not just once, but throughout our lives. Sometimes it's okay to show emotion. It normalizes emotions for other people and it stops you from getting ulcers from cramming it down.

I'm so sorry for your loss. I felt terrible guilt, too, and that was the hardest thing to move past. Take care of yourself and be forgiving of anything you blame yourself for. You didn't ask about this, but memail me if you'd like suggestions on working through the grief.
posted by janey47 at 7:20 PM on July 31, 2014

"It's Tuesday, how are you?" is my work variant on "hanging in there".
posted by yarntheory at 8:19 PM on July 31, 2014

In my previous job of teaching ESL, I always told my students what I'm going to tell you: most people aren't interested in the truth, or at the very least don't want to get involved in a long conversation. The question itself is a pleasantry, and people are just extending it to you as the first step in a mandatory social dance. Think of it as returning a handshake. Most people aren't looking for an elaborate ten step secret handshake, they're just doing it because it's what is expected.

I tried to impress on my students the idea that pretty much all of the hi/hello, how are you/not bad and you conversations should ideally be completed in the time between you see an acquaintance in the hallway and the time you pass them.

For you, honestly, if keep it simple, noncommittal, something like "Not bad, you?" or at worst, "Surviving, you?" Shift the question back on to them as quickly as you can, and will give them the time to decide if they want to initiate the longer conversation or not. Most people probably won't, some will, and you can usually be pretty open and honest with them.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:48 AM on August 1, 2014

Q: "How's it going?"

My A: "It's going[add punctuation mark and mood/inflection of choice]"

But I like the suggestion of "Hey how are you?" as both an appropriate answer and return greeting!
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:22 AM on August 1, 2014

Thanks very much for all the responses--I now feel like I have several options for responding to the dreaded faux question. I've marked some that particularly resonated as "favorites", but *all* of the answers have been helpful. Thank you for taking the time to write.
posted by girl flaneur at 11:09 AM on August 2, 2014

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