My grampa is not with us any more, he is been really sick last week and now it’s all over. I don’t know what I’ll do now he’s dead, since he was always my best friend. I really don’t know why I’m tellin you all this, but you seem like it’s ok to do.
If you get nothing else out of my feeble words, please remember my next sentence because I believe your grandfather would want you to know this:
You’re going to be okay.
Now, I don’t know how long this process will take. And I don’t know when it will begin. But the main thing to know is that today is not the end.
When I was your age, after my father died, I made a weird discovery about people. You’re going to think this is absolutely ridiculous, but I’m going to tell you about it anyway. And I do this for a very important reason. To meet my total word count.
As a kid I noticed that whenever people asked other people how they were doing, they always answered from a list of five basic responses.
So let’s pretend someone asks you the following question:
“How are you?”
Take a moment to think about how you might answer this question right now. Within our culture, here are the five basic answers:
—Not too good.
—Doin’ pretty good.
These are deceptively simple responses, but they’re deeper than you might think. And the reason I share these with you is because I suspect you land somewhere on this informal scale right now.
Let’s start with the first: “Not too good.”
This is the most uncommon response. Which is a shame, because it’s often the truth.
When someone asks how you’re doing, people rarely EVER answer, “Not too good.” We humans are proud creatures. We’re taught to soldier forward and refuse to admit weakness.
Which is why I’m so grateful for your message. You are openly admitting that you’re not doing so hot right now. I think this is healthy. And I think you’re pretty brave.
The next emotional state is: “I’m fine.”
This is the trickiest of them all. Because the words “I’m fine” are almost always total bull. Nobody is ever fine.
For example, I’ll bet your mom has been asking you how you’re doing lately. And I’ll bet 50 bucks you’ve been answering, “I’m fine.”
You’re not alone. EVERYONE always says their fine when they aren’t. In fact, I know some people who would insist they were “fine” even if their house were on fire and the IRS were confiscating their kidneys.
After my father’s funeral, I told everyone I was fine. I even convinced myself that I was fine. Years later, I realized I’d actually been wrangling with depressive problems until my mid-20s.
But here’s the truly great news. One day, when you get through your “fineness,” do you know what emotional state comes next?
That’s right. Okayness.
To me, there is no better term in the English language than “okay.” Although a strong contender would be “hickory smoked.”
Okayness is what we’re all shooting for. It is the most precious pursuit of life. The great thing about okayness is that it’s mellow. It’s not the kind of unrestrained euphoria advertised on the Hallmark Channel. It’s a middle-of-the-road feeling. Laid back, easy. A man can live a rich, full life by simply being okay.
The next emotional level is “pretty-goodness.”
Personally, I have only attained pretty-goodness twice in my life. Once was at a Willie Nelson concert.
The other time was when I was on a cruise ship, and it’s a long story. But I was standing on the main deck, overlooking miles of Mexican coastline, and my wife asked how I was doing. I smiled and said, “Pretty good.”
And I realized this was the first time since I was your age that I had ever said those words.
It was a pretty good day.
There is, however, one level higher than pretty-goodness on my patented scale. This is the “I’m great” level. This is such a high degree of joy that some people aren’t sure if it’s real. But trust me, it exists.
The “I’m great” experience happens when you feel so overwhelmed by the mystery of material existence that you can hardly speak. A single experience like this will change your life forever. It happened to me once. And once was enough.
I was standing on top of a mountain where the ashes of my late father rest. I hadn’t been to my father’s mountain grave in 25 years because… Well, let’s just say I didn’t have the greatest childhood.
On top of that peak, something happened. Something in the wind touched me. Something in the snow. Something in the sunlight.
Within seconds I felt a lifetime of bitterness drip away like hot wax. I cried while overlooking an endless serene mountainscape, and I could swear I felt the gentle spirit of my late father somewhere nearby.
When a random hiker approached me, he saw me weeping. He said, “Sir? Are you okay?”
I turned to him, saltwater rolling down my face, and my words sounded like they were coming from someone else’s mouth. “I’m great,” I said.
One day, friend, you will stand on a similar mountain. And you will rediscover the tangible love of those you have lost. This love will swirl around you like a dust storm. You will wear a watery smile and feel joy so overwhelming that it will crush your chest.
This might happen 25 years from now; it might happen tomorrow. But when it occurs, you’ll know that no matter what the world hurls at you, no matter how badly life hurts, you’re going to be okay.
Kerry Burrell - December 20, 2020 6:40 am
How do you do that? And by “that” I mean consistently answer life’s difficult questions with finesse and wisdom. I am a relatively new subscriber to your column. I got tired of people asking me if I’d heard of Sean of the South, so I broke down and subscribed. I am so glad I did.
I would venture to guess that we are close to the same age; however, you are much wiser than I could ever hope to be. I am proud to say that I “get it.” I am now the one asking people, “Have you heard of Sean of the South?”
Keep up the good work.
Joy Taylor-Lane - December 20, 2020 7:52 am
To the young man, I too am doing “not good” My grandmother died on November 30. People do ask me how I am and I say “I’m fine”. There are two or three people in my life who promptly reply to that answer with “I doubt it”. Those are the people who are helping me get “okay”. I’m not there yet, but I know I will be, eventually. And, just like Sean wrote, you will get there too. It’s normal to feel sad, and a lot of other things too. I am proud of you for taking the time to reach out to someone. There are a lot of people who have experienced the loss of a loved one. Maybe talking to, or just hanging out with one of those people in your life will help you get closer to “okay”. In the meantime, I will say a little prayer for you tonight when I say my prayers.
Joe Dorough - December 20, 2020 10:56 am
Thanks! Just thanks!
Jeanne Kelley - December 20, 2020 11:04 am
This may be the best column ever! Profoundly important and perfectly timed….
Tammy S. - December 20, 2020 11:10 am
To the young man, in Montgomery, who lost their grandfather, I am so, so sorry. I have no doubt he loved you so very much. I feel strongly about this because we have an 8yo grandson and love him greatly. And, I had a grandmother that loved me almost as much as life itself. When I lost her, it left a big hole that has never been filled, and it hurt like heck. Sometimes it still does. Especially in tough moments in life when I wish I could sit at her table eating hot buttered biscuit and chocolate gravy and talking through my problems with her. I miss that. But Sean is right, one day you will be okay again. And the memories you have of your grandfather will be used to continue to speak to you in moments you need wisdom. Because even though he is not physically still with you, his spirit lives on in you, and his words will come back to you just when you need them. And his love, well that is something that will always surround you. Love is just that strong. Big hugs and know many are thinking about you, and praying for you!! I’m praying specifically that you will feel surrounded by the love of God and your grandfather in the days to come.
Te Burt - December 20, 2020 12:24 pm
A lot of people just don’t feel even “okay.” (Me, I”m my usual obnoxiously cheerful self! Even with not knowing if we’re going to live in a totalitarian dictatorship, I’m terrific.) Everybody is struggling to feel “Christmasy” (another great word) and it’s a struggle to feel positive about anything for a lot of people. Maybe the challenges and worries of this year will bring people closer to a real feeling of thankfulness. And they’ll decide they’re (not “their” LOL) “okay.” I just happen to be the exception.
MR - December 20, 2020 1:07 pm
To Commenter Jeanne Kelley: I have come to learn this IS the best column ever!
Kate - December 20, 2020 1:17 pm
Kate - December 20, 2020 1:19 pm
You are amazing, grief is so hard, and you did a beautiful job of helping all of us have a better road map on our journey to being okay.
Bob Brenner - December 20, 2020 1:35 pm
All I have to say is EXCELLENT. That young boy received the greatest advice ever. It was your column today! Well done Sean. ❤️
MermaidGrammy - December 20, 2020 1:37 pm
Dearest Sean, You MAKE everything ok for me, first thing every morning. You are my earliest devotional.
Teresa Blankenship - December 20, 2020 1:44 pm
Well you have done it again sir. Thank you for my smile this morning.
Jan - December 20, 2020 1:54 pm
The loss of someone you love is very hard at any age but especially when you are a child. It helps me to remember that even though the person is no longer with me, their love continues. Sometimes I envision it as a great warm blanket surrounding me, sometimes it is a soft breeze that blows my hair and brushes my cheek. It also helps to know that even though they may not be visible at this moment in my life, I will someday see them again. Thank you, Sean, for helping us through difficult times!
David Brown - December 20, 2020 2:00 pm
I generally fall in the OK state however; I generally use this opportunity to add some cheer to the one asking (providing they’re not an obvious curmudgeon). “I’m Great – Matter of fact, if it got any better, I’d have a hemorrhoid implant just to have something to complain about”!
Rich Owen - December 20, 2020 2:17 pm
Well said, Sean. But I do have one correction. “EVERYONE always says their fine when they aren’t’ should be “EVERYONE says they’re fine when they aren’t”. I am not an English teacher but I play one on TV. LOL,LOL,LOL!
Thought I would throw in a little humor after yesterday’s comments on the so-called “pandemic”.
Connie - December 20, 2020 2:37 pm
Beautiful words and so uplifting to us all but especially to a young person who needed to hear them. Thank you for your loving heart and your willingness to listen to people. God bless.
Kim Obele - December 20, 2020 2:53 pm
Sean – there is something for everyone in this (and every) column you write. I believe it flows from the crushing joy that you experienced on that mountain. May we all be so fortunate to experience Spirit in such a tangible way.
Beryl - December 20, 2020 3:24 pm
The process of grief is an interesting path. “Under the comb, the tangle and the straight path are the same.” ~ Heraclitus
billllly - December 20, 2020 3:42 pm
Really good stuff!
Ann - December 20, 2020 4:33 pm
How are you is so normal to say…but a better way…it covers most “ meetings”… is, “it’s so good to see you”
….it requires no response…but shows concern and caring so things can continue to be “ ok”
Nancy - December 20, 2020 4:35 pm
I lost my youngest sister in August. I didn’t talk to her every day or sometimes not even every week, but sometimes I really want to call her. She could be very obnoxious, but she was my sister and I loved her. I’ve also lost my parents, my brother, and my husband. It hurts. I do know that you don’t ‘get over it’ but it gets easier.
Fleming Straughan - December 20, 2020 4:46 pm
Thank you again
A GREAT friend introduced me to you with your SMILE this summer and I have been sharing you and reading you ever since
I would suggest that I don’t quite fit your list of responses [mine is “fair to middling & blessed”]
Really want to see if anyone is really interested
Then we could have a conversation and share what is really going on – just a few want to take the time….
Meanwhile keep putting your heart into words
It’s a gift
D. - December 20, 2020 4:51 pm
Thumbs UP Sean! Looking forward to answering “hickory smoked” the next time someone asks how I am. Happy Christmas to You & Jamie.
Helen De Prima - December 20, 2020 5:04 pm
My standard answer is “hanging in”, which is the truth, the best we can do most of the time. And yes, once in a decade or so, “doing great.”
Christina - December 20, 2020 5:58 pm
Thank you for this Sean. After losing my grandpa a few weeks ago, I too feel like my grief can’t often find a safe place to land. To know that we are not alone in it but share in the pain and love of it all… is a gift.
Linda Moon - December 20, 2020 6:05 pm
Your total word count for today is 2,345,529 including my one-a-day additions that I’ve taken liberty with. “Okay” is ok for me with some mellow thrown in. I once vicariously experienced mellow at a Willie Nelson concert. The air was permeated with it. Pike’s Peak mountain air is wonderful, and I hope I can visit it again there with your father’s spirit. You were once nearby my father’s spirit, and I visited his resting place for only the second time in more than 25 years because you serendipitously brought me there. I’m forever grateful. You’re more than Okay, Sean Dietrich.
MAM - December 20, 2020 6:41 pm
Well, my eyes are leaking, but thank you! Because yes, we will all be okay someday. And just maybe, it’s today!
Steve E Rafferty - December 20, 2020 7:07 pm
Yes indeed. I lost my grandfather 38 years ago and my late wife 9 years ago.Both were my best friends and rocks I could lean on.As time goes on the pain and grief subside it never really goes away.2020 and Christmas seems to have brought up more pain and sorrow than usual.
DiAn - December 20, 2020 9:57 pm
Sean – At the risk of sounding trite, this was a great column AND a beautiful gift to Thirteen in Montgomery! You are making all of us feel really good for the Holy-days. Keep it up – we need to hear and to read these words. – DiAn
Bill - December 20, 2020 11:50 pm
Might I suggest to “13” that to honor her grandfather maybe she should become someone’s friend??
Sheri K - December 21, 2020 2:34 am
Girl, you should have a column of your own! Your comments are beautifully written!!
elizabethroosje - December 21, 2020 4:33 am
To lose one’s best friend, that’s really hard. Lord be with this young 13 year old! I remember when my Grandpa died, one that understood things that no one else did, it was hard. I agree with you Sean. It’s going to be OK. love your words here Sean. But I get repetitive about that 🙂
Bobbie - December 21, 2020 1:49 pm
Too many words to share so I’ll just say, Thank you and Amen!!
Wishing all a wonderfully blessed Christmas ! Happy birthday, Jesus❤️‼️
Raydene L Kelly - December 21, 2020 7:14 pm
Wonderful article today, thank you for your wonderful words.
Julie - January 8, 2021 2:06 pm
Thank you for sharing your interpretation of “I’m fine.” I also think it is the trickiest response of all. If you’re patient enough to keep the conversation going in the same direction, you will eventually arrive at the truth. It could be good, but most of the time it’s covering up the bad.