Why can’t people just say “hello”?
This post will be a mess as I am early into my new widowhood and lost in a maze of paperwork and sadness.
I have long disliked “how are you?” as a greeting because people in very bad circumstances are forced by societal convention to cough up a “I am fine, how are you?” even if their insides are in despair and near brokenness…and nothing can suck your spirit like being forced to say that you are “fine”. Trying to go against the cultural grain and actually answer that question honestly with a “Suicidal teen in mental hospital, thanks” or “Baby on a vent and not expected to survive, how are you?” are seen as inappropriately hostile.
When I was 26, I was pregnant and had a toddler I was raising alone as my husband was in a war and my family was very faraway. I went to work a 12 hour night shift on a day when “The Ground War” broke out (after weeks of bombs from the air in the first Gulf War which turned out to look like a mother’s kisses compared to the war after 9/11, but noone yet saw that coming) and I knew my husband was in peril. A Doctor at work greeted me with a “how are you?” and my answer was “somewhat marginal” stopped him in his tracks, I can still se the look on his face… a look like he had just learned something.
So I went into Walmart last evening and the cashier greets me with a version of “how are you?” and I consider “Dead husband, and you?” as an answer but instead chose “fine” ….like my newly bereaved parents, I don’t even have the fight in me to rail against it.
A few months ago, I read the local newspaper and it had various articles “Local woman raped, taken to hospital”, “Tragic car accident, taken to hospital”, “Random stabbing, victim to hospital” and it struck me that all their relatives would be entering through the front door of a hospital where the greeters have been instructed to say “How are you?”. I wrote a suggestion to the hospital that people be greeted with a “Hello, welcome” instead of “How are you?” but it was ignored as the greeters still “how are you?” everyone (last time I observed anyhow).
I met with a set of newly bereaved parents near the hospital front entrance and we watched this trainwreck of communication happen in front of us about 30 times and the dad told me how much he hated it and yet even when I explained all this to a person with the influence to change the practice, upon leaving her office to do a task together, I watched her mindlessly say “How are you?” to no less than 834 people (OK, not 834, it just FELT LIKE 834 and I wonder how many of them were in some degree of despair).
Could we, as Bereavement Professionals and Bereaved people change our culture? Could we teach others how much better it is for a hurting person to hear “Hello” or “nice to see you” or “greetings” or “welcome!” or “Shalom” over the stupid, empty and mindless “how are you” ?
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