My wife, Ruth, passed away in April, and I am currently struggling with the immense loss. I deeply miss her, and for the most part, I feel terrible. I haven’t reached a point of “getting over it.”
Since her death, numerous people, including relatives, friends, acquaintances, and caring individuals throughout my day, have approached me with the same question: How am I doing? Despite multiple attempts to respond, I still haven’t found the right answer. Many of my responses have been inadequate, leading to awkward pauses. The truth is, most people already know the answer: I am not doing well. They ask to show their concern and support, but my response often leaves them feeling helpless and eager to move on.
It serves no purpose for me to say that I am not doing well, which only worsens their feelings, nor does it benefit them or me to pretend that I am doing well when I am not.
Having worked as a primary care physician for over 40 years, I have asked the same question to family survivors countless times, never feeling completely satisfied with my role. However, I always believed that saying something was better than saying nothing at all. I made it my goal to reach out to every family who survived my patients, hoping that I made a positive impact. I wish I could have done more and provided better support.
As I navigate this journey of mourning and gain more experience, although not yet fully effective, I have developed a response to this challenging question and learned how to interact more meaningfully with these kind-hearted individuals who seek only to help me.
So, what do I do? First, I engage in conversation with anyone who wishes to speak with me, whether in person, over the phone, or through email. Some unexpected people who care about Ruth, me, or our sons come forward, and I welcome them with open arms. Others whom I anticipated to be there are absent, and I accept that reality. When speaking in person, I make sincere eye contact and offer a personal touch when appropriate. Over the phone or through email, I maintain a warm and casual conversation.
Then, I respond to the inevitable question in the following way: I express my gratitude for their outreach, emphasizing it with multiple thanks and saying, “Thanks for asking. It means a lot to me.” Next, I try to find a connection they shared with Ruth, such as mentioning their shared love for the Mariners or their appreciation for Gordon Lightfoot like she did. This usually elicits a positive response, often accompanied by a smile or laughter. Afterward, I express my gratitude once more for their concern and simply state that I am doing my best. Finally, I wish them well. I believe that both parties conclude the conversation feeling somewhat better, or at least I hope I have provided them with some comfort, even if I don’t personally feel it.
There’s one more thing I do. After such a meeting, I inevitably encounter someone who has recently lost a loved one. I observe their sadness and unease. In those moments, I refrain from asking how they are doing, attempting to cheer them up, or giving unsolicited advice. Instead, I offer my condolences, express my concern, and wish them well. That’s all. I hope that I have offered them some solace, no matter how small.
The grieving process is unique for each individual, and our role is not to resolve or fix it. Instead, it is to gently support and facilitate their journey through grief.
To those who have experienced loss, are currently grappling with loss, or will eventually face loss, please know that I genuinely empathize with your pain. May we all extend kindness, strength, and peace to one another as we navigate this sorrowful journey.
Richard E. Waltman is a family physician.