How Not to Say or Do the Wrong Thing

I chaplain friend of mine passed this article along from the LA Times:

How not to say the wrong thing

It works in all kinds of crises – medical, legal, even existential. It’s the ‘Ring Theory’ of kvetching. The first rule is comfort in, dump out.

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

April 7, 2013

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 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. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. 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. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator. Continue reading


I think grief has less to do with whatever is lost and more to do with the change it makes in our lives.

I meet so many people in my job who are truly accepting and realisitic when it comes to the death of someone they love.  Especially when that person has dementia, has been due to a long and drawn out illness, death has been otherwise anticipated and even welcomed.  People often are ready for their loved one to die and therefore feel their grief will be short.

However I find so many times that even when the loss of someone is expected, the loss of everything associated with that person isn’t.  Suddenly the family member is faced with not having to visit the nursing home on Sunday afternoons, like they have for the past 8 years.  No more doctor’s appointments.  No more visits with the visiting nurse after the bedsheets are changed.  These are the unexpected losses, and these are the focus of all the denial, bargaining, anger and depression associated with grief.

Mourners can accept the loss of the person, but they can’t accept the fact that that loss has changed them irrevocably and they can’t accept the feelings that accompany that loss.  They don’t deny the death, they deny that things have changed and that they have changed.  They don’t bargain with God to get them back, they pretend that if they don’t go by the nursing home or the hospital they won’t be sad.  They aren’t guilty that they didn’t do more, they feel guilty because they can do more, and that change bothers them.

When I turn from considering grief to only be about a body in a casket to being about the global change in my world, I can really grieve and grow.