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Recently, Janet Daniel posted a link from the Los Angeles Times: “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.” While the roughly drawn concentric circles of relationships that surround the person(s) undergoing difficulties is difficult for me to understand, I have thought a lot about the text that accompanies it. It makes so much sense.

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. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

“Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens 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. 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.”

Stop and think about it. The person in the center may lash out in anger. She may blame God. She may wallow in self-pity. Extend grace. Don’t judge or criticize. Show love. Note that you can only complain or question to those in your own circle or further out. Those in smaller circles, closer to the center, are hurting more than you are. Extend the same love and grace to them. If they want to talk to you about their concern for their loved one, listen. If they ask for advice, give it. Don’t offer your unsolicited opinions. Don’t be nosy. Don’t pry. Don’t ask for details. She may not be ready to share, and it’s none of your business.

I would take the Ring Theory one step further. If you must dump, if you grieve too, find one person in the same circle to confide in. Discussions of concern can turn quickly into gossip, and speculation and conjecture can turn into rumors.

The Empty Chair at the Holiday Table

Last November, the Baylor communications office published a story on how to interact with those who have recently lost a loved one—an interview with Dr. Helen Harris, grief expert at the Baylor School of Social Work. The headline caught my attention, because the empty chair is such a potent image of loss for me. While the story specifically addressed the difficulty of the first Thanksgiving and Christmas without a loved one, almost everything on the list is applicable year round. Here are the bullet points. You can click the link above to read the details.

  • Listen more than talk.
  • Acknowledge the loss and express your caring.
  • Find a way to include the lost loved one in the holidays.
  • Take time to tell stories and look through old photos. But don’t push it.
  • Ask what helps and be open to what doesn’t.
  • Avoid “helpful” actions that are actually hurtful.
  • Understand that there’s no set time frame for someone who suffers a loss to be “over it” or “move on.”

The “hurtful” action that Harris refers to is avoidance. I recall the people who avoided any reference to my loss when they saw me after Lev died. A few avoided me. You don’t need words—just a hug or a pat on the shoulder conveys that you know and care. Or simply say, “I’m thinking about you” or “I’m praying for you.” If you’re prepared for a tear or two, you might share a personal story about the loved one. I remember the attendant at the garage where Lev parked every day telling me about some kindness Lev had done for him. That warmed my heart.

On the other hand, don’t ask, “How are you?” unless you want an honest answer. She is not “fine.” Except in private, between close friends, it’s probably wise to avoid questions that could bring tears. We all want to be “strong.” We don’t want to break down in public.

While Harris speaks specifically about Thanksgiving and Christmas, every legal holiday and every major life event hurts. He is supposed to be there! And when you’re alone on a holiday when stores and restaurants are closed, you feel like everyone else in the world is with people they care about. When everyone else is eating turkey on Thanksgiving or barbecuing on the Fourth of July, you’re home alone with peanut butter. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can hurt a lot the first time you don’t have mom or dad. In the old days of red corsages when your mother was alive, white if she was dead, the pain of that first white corsage was immeasurable. In fact, everything you do for the first time without him hurts.

One more thing you can do…write a note. While I appreciated every act of kindness—calls, emails, food, flowers, donations, visits, attendance at the service—I think the hand-written sympathy notes meant the most. I was especially comforted by the personal remembrances, like the words of the parking attendant. The notes continued to trickle in long after the other expressions of sympathy faded. I was incredibly busy after Lev died—settling the estate, learning the business, closing the downtown office. When the mail came each afternoon, I took a break and read the letters. When they quit coming, I missed that time. Now that I understand the grieving process better, I realize that was my daily time of mourning. It added structure to my grief. I saved every note. They’re in a big box, and someday I will read them again and put them in a notebook for the children.

Note: I was so impressed by the validity of Harris’ advice that I requested an appointment with her when I was in Waco in May. That interview was the basis of four blogs on grief.

Bereavement: “I’ve Been Robbed”
Mastering the Storms of Grief
What Do You Say When There Are No Words?
The Very Public Face of Grief 

Photo: Kroller-muller Museum, De Hoge Veluwe National Park, the Netherlands

Please add any particularly helpful acts you benefited from when you were grieving?
What was particularly unhelpful or even hurtful?