How are you doing? How's it going? What's new? These questions flow so easily off your lips whenever you bump into someone. Over the years, this standard greeting has become a connective glue that bonds us together in social interactions. Amongst strangers and acquaintances it's a way of acknowledging them and opening the door to further interaction if both of you desire it, although often it means little more than "Hello".
For family and friends, this type of question begs a response with some meaning. But how much? What are we really asking? Do we really want to know the answer? If you really aren't well, or if you happen to be dying, does the person behind that smiling face want to know how you really feel? "oh hi," you say. "I feel like shit, I'm peeing blood when I can pee, and I spend most of my nights crying my eyes out at the unfairness of it all." Do we really think that's what they want to hear? Maybe some do! Maybe you can look at the body language and facial expressions for a clue. If someone asks you how you are doing and has a very serious, questioning look on their face, then maybe they know something about your situation and really want to know how you are doing.
Sometimes it's so obviously lacking in sincerity that you know they don't really want to know. I've had many people, including supposed friends, ask me how I am, and when I tell them my pain level is really bad and I'm worried about how fast my cancer is spreading, they say, "That's great! I'm glad you're feeling better". I kid you not. This happens more often than you would think. But sometimes you can give people like this an out. I've said that my pain level is pretty horrendous but I feel a bit better than yesterday, so when they say, "That's great! I'm glad you're feeling better," it sort of makes sense. To them, anyway.
Sometimes it can even backfire on you because as soon as someone hears you have a disease or are suffering, many people love to tell you how they had something which is totally unrelated but surely must be much more serious. Or they'll start listing all the people they know who died miserably from whatever you have. All just to perk you up!
My good friend Lori Hope has just released a revised edition of her
wonderful book, help me live: 20 things people with cancer want you to
know, which contains many humorous and sometimes scary things that people say to people with cancer as well as what we really want to hear. It's certainly something I relate to and has been very helpful to many people who find themselves having to deal with a friend or loved one with cancer. Although it focuses on cancer, it is equally applicable to any serious illness. Please check her out at lorihope.com to see how to obtain a copy of the book and access her entertaining and informative blogs.
It's hard to know how to respond sometimes, although I think we do get better at it as time goes on. I've personally developed a number of approaches to deal with different people or situations - rules of thumb if you wish.
For strangers, I generally just say that I'm doing great and ask them how they are doing with the same level of disinterest. For friends, relatives and others who might be interested, I tell them I'm "surviving" or just "getting by". This provides enough of a hint that invites them to probe further if they are truly interested but also allows them to brush it off with, "Aren't we all," or something similar. For my other friends who ask but really don't want to hear, I like to tell them how I'm doing in gory detail to see how they respond. I'm just having fun to see how uncomfortable I can make them or to see if they come up with a newly entertaining response. (Cruel, isn't it? But you've got to have some fun when your life is falling apart!)
For a long while, I would avoid telling my friends too much about how I was feeling because they always asked and I felt that I was complaining too much to them. I also didn't want to scare them away because friends are so precious at times like this. But Dianne told me that I had to tell them the truth. They were my friends and they really want to know so they can understand how I'm really doing and know how to help me. So I started doing that and discovered that she was right (as she always is, of course)!
So just think about what you are saying when you greet someone who you know is ill. If you really want to know how they're doing then make it clear and be sincere. If not, try, "Hi. Good to see you." But remember, some people really need to talk about what is happening to them and many don't have anyone strong enough and interested enough to do that. If you're someone who can, then bless you and let them know. You can start something precious for both of you.
And if they tell you they're dying, don't tell them how wonderful that is! You'll just give yourself away!