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I started watching the first season of The Vampire Diaries on Monday night. I could say it was for research purposes, to see what’s going on in YA high school land and vampire land right now (in which case Glee is also research). But really I just wanted to watch a silly show that wasn’t taking itself too seriously after receiving bad dental news. Who knew that it would inspire my next blog post?

The first episode establishes the teenage protagonist of the series, Elena, who is starting a new year of high school only a few months after her parents were killed in a tragic accident. We see her getting ready in the morning, telling herself that she’ll no longer be “the sad girl”. And later on, she complains how everyone is asking her “How are you?” when really they don’t care and just want her to be fine. She spends the day lying because, of course, four months after losing her parents, she’s not fine. She’s pretty far away from fine.

A lot of that first episode was bad in a funny way (some of it, I suspect, on purpose). But I keep thinking about that moment of complete truth, because the writers completely nailed the “How are you?” detail. That simple question had the same effect on me. It took me quite awhile to accept its usage as a social nicety and standard greeting rather than the question it purports to be.

Offering this greeting to a grieving person is like jabbing a sore muscle to see if it still hurts…only it’s somebody else’s sore muscle being poked. It’s a reminder that no, you’re actually not doing fine at all, and not only that, but you are now expected to lie about it and pretend everything’s just peachy. That kind of pretending, unfortunately, takes energy, and energy is in fairly short supply when you feel like your chest is going to split open from missing the one you lost. In addition, it causes you to feel like you should be as together as you’re claiming. After awhile, you learn to dread the question.

Another variant of the problem is the person who asks you how you are constantly, like you’re going to explode into a million pieces any second now. (Or, as shown during the episode, the fake, over-concerned, and pitying rendition.) The true answer probably hasn’t changed in the last day or two, but sometimes it’s nice, even necessary, to take a break from the wellspring of grief for the comfort of normalcy. Overasking shatters any possibility of creating moments and experiences of relative peace.

So should we avoid saying “How are you?” altogether? I don’t think so, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we began meaning it as a question again, instead of allowing it to remain just a form? And perhaps thought more about appropriate times to ask it and how to listen in a nonjudgmental way? Then, instead of lying, a grieving person could honor their own difficult feelings and feel more supported by the outside world. Heck, I’m not grieving right now and I’d still like to be asked how I’m really doing. But many people never ask.

Here’s how I’m doing. I’m tired. I’ve been having a hard time this last several months. I’ve been under a lot of stress and in a fair amount of pain. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. But I’m also determined, and I’m completely in love with life. So I’m hanging in and appreciating the good things even more than usual, especially the people who I love (and the dog, I can’t forget her). And I’m looking forward to change.

How are you?

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