When people ask you how you are doing, you can always tell what answer they want to hear. If they say, “how are you, okay?” Then just tell them yes, you are doing okay. Your clue is at the end of their sentence. They are prompting you with the right answer. If someone says simply, “how are you?” Then you can give them the “real” answer.
I have found that many people just don’t know what to say to someone in crisis or grieving. The first step is to let them tell you the story. Ask “what happened?” Did someone squirt you with silly string???? Listen as they tell the story. When people have experienced any kind of trauma, they want to tell you what happened. Even if you are the twentieth person to ask. It helps them process the event.
All we can do is listen and acknowledge what happened. Instead of saying that must have been horrible, we can ask “what was that like for you?” Let them describe it. Our response is “I’m so sorry that happened.” “I’m sorry you are going through this. How can I help?”
Just having someone listen to their pain can be such a relief. The worst thing we can do is try to say something that we think may make them feel better. There are times when nothing anyone says can make us feel better. We just need to feel the pain and have people around us who can be in that space with us.
I was visiting a friend in the hospital and she told me she was dying of brain cancer. I violated my own pastoral rules and blurted out “Oh Donna, what can I do?” Obviously there was nothing to do but be present to her but I was desperate to “do” something. She was an amazing woman. She looked at me seeing my pain and said “you can give me hug.”
If we ask someone how they are doing, we should be willing to listen no matter what. After all, we are made in the image of God.