Why the simple question “how are you?” would send me into an existential tailspin

It seems like a simple question. Uttered, often, without thought. A greeting, almost.

“Hey, how are you?”

“Fine, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”

Me, with my husband shortly before he went on hospice. (Photo courtesy Rebecca ort photography)

Me, with my husband shortly before he went on hospice. (Photo courtesy Rebecca ort photography)

And then everyone goes about their day.

Except, when your 44-year-old husband has brain cancer, it’s not such a simple question.

The question might come at school pickup. It might come by text; it might come from a neighbor or friend stopping by with dinner; it might come on the sidelines of the soccer field.

Getting this question – always from someone sincere and well-meaning, I should say – would cause fits of uncertainty in me.

You see, I find it an impossible question. It requires a series of split-second calculations:

Who is asking? Do they really want to know, or are they just being polite?

How much do they already know? If I were to even begin to answer, how much context do I need to give? Are they interested in summary-level status, or the details of the latest medical news?

Am I even interested in telling this person how I really and truly am?

And anyway, how am I? Can I even answer that for myself? At any given moment I might have multiple answers that are all true. I mean, on one level, I might be fine. Or even good. I might not have a headache and I might have eaten recently, for example. But on another whole level – say, the existential level – my whole life is falling apart before my eyes. So, on that level, I’m the exact opposite of “fine.”

More often than not, all these thoughts would swirl in my head for a fraction of a second, I’d sigh and give up, and out of my mouth would come: “fine.” Which was neither helpful nor accurate, but it was all I could muster.

And I’d miss a chance to connect with someone who really did care, and really did want to help.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, talks about learning after losing her husband that “how are you today?” is a much more manageable question. I agree, and I try to stick with this when speaking with someone I that know is going through a rough situation.

Generally speaking, I’ve been trying, since my experience with my husband’s terminal illness, not to default to “how are you” as a greeting. “Good to see you,” “what’s happening?” or “what’s new?” are all great options. I don’t always remember, but I always hope to.

And, I am happy to report that, if you run into me today and ask “how are you,” I will answer “fine.” Maybe even “good” or “great,” depending on the day. No existential tail-spinning required.

How my family turns grief into action

Megan (then age 8) and her dad shortly before he went on hospice (September 2015). Photo courtesy Rebecca Ort photography.

Megan (then age 8) and her dad shortly before he went on hospice (September 2015). Photo courtesy Rebecca Ort photography.

One day after school my 10-year-old said, “Mom, when I grow up, I want to help cure brain cancer.”

We weren’t talking about cancer. Or careers. We were talking about snack and homework.

“That sounds great,” I replied. “What did you have in mind? Do you want to be a doctor, a nurse, a researcher?”

“No,” Megan said. “I want to use my art skills to raise money for the research others are doing.”

Just ten months earlier her dad — my husband — had died of brain cancer. It was glioblastoma, the same type that Teddy Kennedy, Beau Biden, and more recently John McCain, had died of. Megan had been struggling with our loss. In her seemingly offhand comment, we found a way to help her turn her grief into action.

“You know,” I started. “You don’t necessarily have to wait until you’re grown up to help. You could do something smaller now, and raise a little money for the research Dr. Cobbs is doing.”

Dr. Charles Cobbs, of the Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment in Seattle, was my late husband’s doctor. He is leading exciting and critical research into some viral causes of glioblastoma.

Megan had been wanting to have a table at her school’s upcoming St. Nick fair, but didn’t have any ideas of what to sell. “Maybe I could make Christmas cards and sell them, and give the money to Dr. Cobbs,” she said. She ran off to her room and got to work. An hour later, she was back with a half-dozen designs — and looking to me to figure out how to get them printed, packaged, and ready to sell.

We were able to donate $500 from that initial effort, and Megan’s Cards for Cancer was born. We decided to put up a little web site and have her make some note cards and thank you cards so we didn’t have to wait a whole year to do it again.

Working with my daughter, now 12, on Megan’s Cards came at a great time for me, too. It was a time when I was also struggling. My head was all over the place, and I was having difficulty focusing. Sitting down and saying to myself, “I need to figure out how to build a web site, because this project is helping Megan with her grief,” was surprisingly useful to me. It forced me to focus. I was turning my grief into action. And it was helping both of us.

Just last week we crossed the three-year mark since losing my husband, Dennis. Three years he’s been gone; three years I’ve been trying to pick up the pieces; two years we’ve been raising money through Megan’s Cards. And, to date, we’ve been able to donate over $5,000 to brain cancer research. My goal is to get to $44,000, in honor of his 44 years.

As Megan said when she was ten, “I want to give money for research because I don’t want any other families to go through all of the sad times like my family did.” I’m so proud of her and how’s she’s turning her grief into action.

Last September, I hosted a Biden Cancer Community Summit for cancer widows and their families to turn their grief into action, too. Over 50 key players made commitments to the Biden Cancer Initiative to take action that would help advance cancer research, patient care, and more. One of these commitments — Take Action Against Cancer — grew directly from my experience turning grief into action in my family.

If your family has been widowed by cancer, you can join us for the first-ever Take Action Against Cancer Day of Service and turn your grief into action, too. It’s happening the weekend before February 4, which is World Cancer Day. It’s a way to give back while having fun with your friends and family. Or, if you want quick-and-easy, there are a couple of online options, too.

The important thing is to do something — anything — to turn your grief into action. As Adam Grant said, “When you lose someone who is very close to you, you can do good in that person’s name and it becomes an extension of their life. It becomes part of their legacy.”

My family has certainly found this to be true. We hope yours will, too.