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Behind the "How Are You?"

“I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but things will get easier with time.” Rahul, my cherished mentor and friend, placed a hand on my shoulder as we chatted during an interim in the services being held for my dad. I met Rahul on the first day of starting my big-girl job in San Francisco, quickly realized he was the bee’s knees, and, proud to say, have successfully trapped him into being my friend to this day. (I’m actually very proud of this last fact. I even have a video recording of me during a public speaking exercise, speaking to a full room about why I admire Rahul as my mentor.)


Truthfully, I may have applied this statement in an unintended way when I returned to New York. I found that as more and more time passed, I felt more at ease because I knew that any mention of my extended absence would likely become just a blip in people’s minds. In other words, I wouldn’t have to have an awkward conversation about why I was gone. After all, I’m sure most people were simply well-meaning and thought I might’ve just been skipping classes or left on vacation or something. Nothing really prepares you for a “my dad died” scenario.


One evening as I headed to the gym, I ran into a classmate I hadn’t seen in a long while. I hate the “how are you” question because it would be inaccurate to use the vague “good” and “fine” and somehow dishonest if I didn’t tell people I considered to be a friend the truth. She asked me how I’d been, and I looked away hurriedly just saying that I’d been busy with all the work I had to make up. We spoke briefly for another minute or so and then parted ways.


When I got to the gym, I couldn’t stop thinking about how awkward that interaction was. I didn’t need to say anything because I’m sure she didn’t think much of the whole thing, but I didn’t want to feel like I had to hide anything about myself. No one ever talks about death and loss and I just didn’t want to continue on that way.


Hey sorry if I was a little weird earlier. I haven’t been in school for a while because my dad passed away unexpectedly and it’s just still hard for me to talk about that still.


As I moved from the squat rack to the dumbbell rack, I couldn’t stop replaying the interaction in my head. She had responded to my text and of course I had been imagining our greeting in passing as more awkward in my head than what it had actually been. But it was too late, I kept thinking about how awkward it was to talk about death. How was I supposed to act as if nothing major in my life had happened when it was simultaneously too difficult to casually bring up in conversation? We’re conditioned to state in a few words only a vague response to the question “how are you?”


Tears welled up in my eyes and it became too much for me to hold back while at the gym. I grabbed my things and left, beginning to cry as I left the building. It was dark as I walked uphill back to my apartment and with almost no one around in the evening, I felt freer to cry more audibly. Little did I know, I was only opening the floodgates. The growing stream of tears clouded my vision so I couldn’t see where I was walking, but I knew I was going the right direction. One foot in front of the other. At some point, a tall, thin figure approached me to ask me if I was okay. Oh gosh, they probably think I was assaulted or something. I was clearly not okay, but again, it would never feel right to tell someone that my dad had just passed away. I cried harder and mumbled something inaudible about being fine. (If that person who stopped me ever reads this, I do really appreciate that you stopped to check on me.)


My flatmate saw me as I walked to my room and stopped her conversation on the phone to come over to me. She hugged me and asked what was going on as I cried.


“I miss my dad,” I told her. I eventually went to my room and laid on the floor, staring into space as I considered the simple truth behind those four words.



 


When I later told a friend about what had happened that night, she told me that I didn’t need to tell people about my dad’s death if I didn’t want to. I understood that. The thing was that I did want people to know. I never wanted others knowing about death or me talking about death to be awkward. It turns out talking about it was just too hard for me to do.


Looking back now, Rahul was right, as always. Things do get easier with time.


Hedda Hiếu Nguyễn

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