“How are you?” It’s a common question, although we normally use it as a polite greeting with no expectation of an honest answer. Just the standard, “Good, how bout you?” is a sufficient reply.

But when you’re grieving, very few things are simple – especially casual conversations.

How am I?

On any given day the myriad of realities that grip my soul beg to be let loose as my response.

Horrible. Barely holding on. Trying to survive. Waiting for God to do something. Exhausted. I miss my son. Death won’t leave me alone. Anxious and afraid like never before. Weak. Ashamed of my frailty. Battling bitterness. Sad. Constantly reminded that I’m a childless father. Confused. Concerned for my wife. Numb. Terrified of the future. Wondering who’s next.

I spare both of us the pain and awkwardness of an honest answer. “Good, how bout you?”

But then there are the occasions when someone close asks the question and has every intention of hearing my unsettling response. They genuinely care and they plan to stick around for the mess that’s about to follow. They know the complexity of this question. They understand that it’s terribly hard for me to answer, so it’s fearfully difficult for them to ask.

“How are you” is a doorway that can drag them into the wild landscape of grief that I wander in. Yet they dare to step into the darkness with me.

With courageous patience they bear with my rambling confusion, complicated sorrow, unraveling anger, and inevitable tears. They’re bold enough to gently ask more questions without adding too many of their own words. They aren’t afraid to say my son’s name, as if they know that just hearing others talk about Eli is a profound validation and comfort to my soul. My weeping provokes their own and they’re okay with the silence as I grasp for words or breath between sobs. They don’t attempt to resolve the tension or wrap up the conversation with neatly tied answers. They know that their tear-filled listening is exactly what I need.

“How are you?” is used by most of us in the shallows. But the valiant know how to use it in the depths.