Dee, who is dying from cancer, says in the novel Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, “Individuals ask me, how ARE you? But they don’t really want to know.  They don’t want to hear that I’m tired all the time, that my bladder is leaky and that I am on the watch for my systems shutting down. They don’t want to hear those tough things. They want to hear that I am at peace, that I’ve led a great life, that I am happy my son has returned—so that’s what I give them.”

How can we ask the question, “How are you?” in a way that allows and invites the suffering person to answer honestly?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Say, “I know you are hurting, and I really care about that. If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”
  • A person usually wants to talk about his or her illness or crisis. They want to tell their story. It’s the number one topic on their mind.  So gently say, “Tell me about it.”
  • Sometimes it is helpful to ask questions that will help the person unload their heavy heart:
      • What do you feel like talking about today?
      • What are you thinking (or feeling) today?
      • What worries you the most?
  • Or, say with sincere feeling, “How are you REALLY?” Maybe repeating, “Really!  I want to know!”

Photo credit: Jeremy Wilburn

Karen Mulder

Karen Mulder

Karen Mulder is the founder of the Wisdom of the Wounded ministry. She lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband Larry.


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