the wrong thing to say

I hesitate to post this.  And I wouldn’t if so many of you hadn’t asked. It feels awkward and could appear self serving. But after I posted this “Ten Things Bereaved Parents Wish You Knew” I had so many folks write me and request more on this subject, I decided I would go ahead and post this one as well.

We all struggle. Knowing what to say and what not to say, when someone you love is suffering, is one of the hardest things we do in relationship with others.  We want so badly to say something, anything, to bring comfort, fill the void, make sense of the pain, fix it. So we say something, hope it was the right thing to say, and walk away wondering.

When a friend of mine posted this on her Facebook wall, I knew it was just what you guys were asking for.  It’s not full of Scripture, nor does it hold the same authority.  But it is a very simple, practical, and I think, useful tool to keep in mind when seeking to help a loved one through suffering.  It works in all kinds of crises.  It’s called the ‘Ring Theory.’ The rule is “comfort in, dump out”, but that is explained in detail in the article below.  The original article was posted in the LA Times and was written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman.  I paraphrased the original article, to shorten it just a bit. It follows below…

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say, and the wrong person to say it to. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can question, cry, complain, whine and moan and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help, bring comfort. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

There was nothing wrong with Katie’s friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn’t think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to Katie’s principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring. Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring, avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own.

Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.  And don’t worry. You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.


Illustration by Wes Bausmith

I hope you found this helpful.  And for the record, Glenn and I haven’t had anyone “dump in.” Again, that’s not at all why I posted this.  I simply posted this because so many of you had asked for it.  We have actually had very few people “say the wrong thing” to us thru our journey of grief.  And even those few comments were said out of love and a desire to help and bring comfort, and we know that. We are so grateful for all of you…truly more grateful than words can express!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to the wrong thing to say

  1. Giovanna says:

    Sadly, I needed to hear this today. Timing is everything:-( My prayers continue everyday for you, Glenn and your kids.

  2. Camille says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart and the wisdom you have gleaned in this journey of grief the Lord has you on….it has blessed my heart. May you know the comfort of our Precious Saviour each and every day until He calls you Home! In His Love, Camille

  3. Jackie says:

    This article is excellent and a great reminder. Wow, thanks for sharing! I’m sorry for your loss. I loved your other article, too. I came from Camille’s blog. Blessings on you and your family!

  4. Aurelie says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, I will be needing this advice a lot this week :(.May the Lord bless you in this difficult journey. Thanks for helping others… (also from Camille’s Blog)

  5. Dawna says:

    Words of wisdom, thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s