how to answer “how are you?” when you’re grieving — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

My dad died in late August. Since then, many people have asked me “how are you?” to which I usually respond with, “I’m okay” or “I’m here” or “It’s day-by-day.” Depending on how close they are to me, I may expand upon that answer. I don’t answer with “fine” because … well, I’m not fine. I have more worries as my mom needs to sell the house and relocate closer to me, I miss my dad, I need to reorganize my home so my mom can temporarily live with me, etc.

The issue is with my boss when he asks this question.

There have been some organizational changes, and I went from having an on-site manager to an overseas one. To compound the issue, we have a language barrier problem (his English is not 100% fluent, and my French is not 100% fluent). We do our 1:1 meetings over the phone.

In the first 1:1 with him not 12 days after my Dad died, this was the interaction:

Manager: “Hi! How are you?”
Me: “I’m a bit sad.”
Manager: “Oh? Why?”
Me: *stunned* “Um, my father’s recent death?!?”
Manager: “Oh, right….”

I have reached out to our Employee Assistance Program and spoken with a grief counsellor. In my recent session with the counselor, I asked about how to deal with the “how are you” question with my boss, because I am *not* fine, and I cannot in good conscience answer “fine” despite this being the answer my boss is expecting. We came up with the French, “comme si, comme ça,” which translates to “so-so.”

In my recent 1:1, I used the “so-so” answer, to which he again asked, “why?” and I made some comment about changes in my personal life as well as the recent organizational changes. His response was, “I cannot help you with your personal life.”

What I need is a way to get around an answer of “fine” to “how are you?” because I do not want to answer “fine.” I don’t want to be rude and ask that he not ask the question: I just want to find a way to answer so that I don’t get a “why?” at the end of it, because it’s clear he doesn’t want to hear the “why” when it might be “personal.”

The easiest answers will be “I’m okay — how are you doing?” and “Hanging in there — how about you?”

I’ve answered a different version of this question before, from someone who felt the “how are you?”/“fine” ritual was deeply inauthentic and objected to it on that basis. My advice to him was different, although there’s some overlap. In that case, the answer was that in many work contexts, “how are you?” doesn’t really mean “tell me what’s really going on with you.” It just means “I acknowledge you, fellow human.” The “fine, and you?” response means “I acknowledge you back.” It’s social ritual.

But in your case, I completely get why answering “fine” feels dishonest, and maybe even like a betrayal of your grief for your father. Of course you don’t want to say you’re fine when a parent just died. That makes perfect sense.

The piece of this I don’t think you’re accounting for is where your manager is coming from and what the responses you’ve been giving will prompt from him. If you tell him, “I’m a bit sad,” any decent human is going to ask about that. It will sound like you want that! There’s no way to hear “I’m a bit sad” and respond with, “Well, let’s talk about this week’s sales.”

That said, there’s some weirdness on his side! He keeps forgetting about your dad’s death. And his “I cannot help you with your personal life” line is horrible and cold, especially when you were just answering a question he had asked.

But here’s what we know about your boss from your letter: He is not good at remembering this important thing from your life. He should be, but for whatever reason, he’s not. And like most people, he is going to ask you follow-up questions if you tell him you’re not doing okay.

So, given that your goal here is to just get past this part of the conversation without feeling like you’re lying, go with a response that’s relatively neutral and doesn’t invite further questioning. “I’m so-so” is moving you closer to that, but it’s not quite there — it’s still an answer that most people would feel compelled to ask about.

But “I’m okay — how are you?” and “Hanging in — how are you doing?” will probably work better. They convey “there’s nothing you need to inquire about here.” Plus, asking him how’s he’s doing right after you answer is an important part of this because it will move the conversation along … whereas your previous responses were just sitting out there alone, further increasing the need for him to engage with them. Instead, if you return the conversational volley (“how about you?”), he can complete his side of the social ritual, and the conversation can move on.

I’m sorry about your dad.

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