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When Not to Say \”How Are You?\”

February 19, AD2013 21 Comments


In my job caring for women and families during pregnancy loss and infant death, about 90% of what I do is communication. I enter a room to meet strangers experiencing (most often) the worst day of their lives. People in full blown crisis often hear only a smalI percentage of what is said to them and remember little of it. I must explain their care options (in the bereavement realm, not the obstetric), the normal process of what to expect, learn what their overriding concerns are and many other deep and complex issues all without offending or overwhelming them.

It is actually quite difficult, but after interacting with about 500 families and really applying myself to learning how to communicate well, my families tell me they feel nurtured, respected and cared-for.

One unexpected side effect, however, is that I have also gained a profound disdain for poor communication. Having observed and been subjected to bad communication habits, I have come to believe that our witness and even our capacity for momentary evangelization can be destroyed by falling into mindless, careless, or trite blathering. Those amongst us who may be hurting and in most need of our kindness can be alienated and injured by us if we don’t engage our minds in how we speak to them.

Of the many examples of bad communication I could use, the one I want to deal with in depth, is how phrases that might be passable for a person in normal circumstances become (sometimes grossly) inappropriate when used with the newly or deeply bereaved/hurting. My first example is “How are you?” when used as a greeting.

If I could singlehandedly change a societal norm, this would be it.

When used as a greeting, “How are you?” demands – by societal convention – a “Fine,” or “Fine, and you?” People in very bad circumstances are forced to cough up these words even if their insides are screaming in despair and near brokenness…and nothing can suck your spirit like being forced to say that you are “fine” when you are not. Trying to go against the cultural grain and remain silent or actually answer that question honestly with a, “Suicidal teen in mental hospital, thanks.” or, \”Baby on a vent and not expected to survive, and you?” are seen as inappropriately hostile.

Five months ago, with no warning at all, my young and healthy husband died suddenly in our home. He was my beloved of 29 years and I found him cold and lifeless on the floor. (Imagine screams of anguish that rose up the stairs and fell on the ears of my children.) I was a teenager when I met him and in our late 40\’s; we had joyfully entered grandparenthood together; we had many plans for our united future. To say that I wasn’t “fine” for quite a while is an understatement.

After the normal rituals of death and burial, I made fledgling attempts to reenter my normal world. A trip to the mall seemed a great idea for my daughter and me, but after 15 consecutive “HOW ARE YOU!?”s from sales people who were obviously told to “greet” each customer…my 15th “fine” was followed by a full meltdown.

I understand the need to greet, but “Hello, welcome to blah blah store, please let us know if we can be of assistance,” would be clear, effective and non-harming. What other phrases could you use? I personally like, “Hello,” and “Welcome,” but you could also use, “Greetings,” or “Good morning/afternoon,” etc. For those you know who are in deep despair, I suggest, “It’s so nice to see you, I think of you ALL the time,” so they perhaps won’t feel alone and forgotten.

So how can our mindless words actually impair our Christian service to others?

I was still reeling from my mall experience when I went to Mass the next day. On my way out, I saw a leader who full well knew my husband had been dead for a short 3 weeks and his greeting was, “HOW ARE YOU!?” with a huge smile on his face as if it had never occurred to him that such a question is loaded (and to this minute I don’t understand the huge smile, I was the only person he was interacting with at the time). His words were empty and (even if not deliberately mean) mindlessly unconsidered. I was in need of pastoral care but his greeting repelled me and I bolted past him. How much better another leader did with a soft voice, extended hand and sincere words of concern for us that did not demand a pain-inducing, trite and untrue answer.

For the rest of today, please listen for this phrase and imagine how many people faced with it might be hurting from some serious cause.

Is this greeting always wrong? No, but I suggest you use it only when you have the time, privacy and inclination to let the person you are greeting know that you care to hear a real answer then let them tell their story; it may be very healing for them and you will likely have a chance to bring a glimmer of Grace into their painful world.

Getting back to the specific population I care for – one of the 900,000 who suffer early pregnancy loss or 50,000 who suffer late pregnancy / early newborn loss in the US each year, they often find that topics that might seem casual to others become for them HUGE sources of pain and angst.

Questions like, “Is this your first?” or “How many children do you have?” seem harmless until the person trying to answer it agonizes over whether to tell you about the one(s) who died. I urge sincere caution when engaging in this sort of chat; please be very aware that the person you are speaking with may have a tragic death they are still dealing with.

The ladies I care for who carry babies with life limiting conditions to term tell me of folks out in public who pry and pry for information yet are not really ready to hear, “This baby isn’t expected to live.” After 8 years doing my job, I don’t ask strangers about their childbearing – general kindness and a sweet smile communicates everything I need to express to them. If you really need to speak, consider, “Blessings to you and your sweet baby.”

I hope in my contributions to Catholic Stand I am able to bring a unique point of view to share with you. I consider the opportunity to serve my dear people as a precious and sacred thing and I live my vocation everyday. I wasn’t sure what my first column would be about until this morning; I wrote & mailed a Valentine card for my mother-in-law to take to my husband’s grave (near his parents, far from me). While still reeling in emotion, I went to a clothing store where I was met with the loudest, strongest “How are you?!” of my life. I made it all the way into the fitting room before I dissolved into tears, terribly disinterested in the dress pants awaiting my approval. May my pain teach a precious lesson that will spare another.

© Tammy Ruiz. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Social Justice • Tags: , , , ,

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz Ziegler has been a Nurse for 30 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage but recently married a man she met when they were both children.

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