In 2003, Susan Silk’s then 14-year-old niece Emily was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was an extremely difficult time for the family, yet many people felt the need to make comments to her sister-in-law – often inappropriate ones. They would ask prying questions about the diagnosis and treatment plan, or even offer advice that her sister-in-law wasn’t receptive to. It made a tough time that much harder for her family.
The people who commented on Emily’s diagnosis likely meant well. Knowing what to say to someone in a difficult situation is one of the more complicated life skills to master. Whether in person or online, people often accidentally make things worse. Or, in contrast, they do and say nothing to avoid offense.
To help people better understand a more effective way to react, Silk, a Southfield, Michigan-based clinical psychologist, created the Ring Theory, a now popular process that helps people respond with compassion in a number of situations, such as a death or a devastating job loss.
The idea is that there are concentric rings of people affected by a difficult situation. There’s the inner circle, who are the people directly impacted by the loss, and then, outside of that centre, rings of people farther away from trauma. In Silk’s case, Emily was at the centre, her parents were on the next ring, followed by the grandparents, then Silk and her husband, and family friends and so on. To avoid upsetting or putting unwelcome demands on those closest to the tragedy, people should offer nothing but comfort toward the centre ring, and dump their fears, frustrations and questions outward.
“I recognized that the primary caregivers – the inner, inner circle – needed to just hunker down,” says Silk. “They were in fight-for-their-life survival mode and anything other than ‘would you like coffee or tea?’ was more than they could handle.”
“You don’t say how hard it is for you. You say how hard it is for them. If you’re not sure what words to use, say something as simple as ‘I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.’”
What should you say?
When offering condolences, Silk suggests keeping the focus on the person. “Their emotional resources are just so fragile at that point,” she explains. “You don’t say how hard it is for you. You say how hard it is for them. If you’re not sure what words to use, say something as simple as ‘I’m so sorry for what you’re going through.’”
How can you help?
Is a kind word or a comment on a social media post enough? That depends on how close you are to the person and the scale of the situation. Any special effort, like a private message, a card or flowers, will likely be appreciated more than a simple note on a Facebook post, for example.
If you know of a concrete way to help, like offering food or child care, then jump in. But if you’re not sure what to do, don’t ask anyone in the exhausted, emotional centre ring to give you the answer, says Silk. Seek advice from people a few rings out.
What not to say
You may think that telling your own story about a similar experience might be helpful. But most people don’t want to hear about your awful tale when they’re still in the middle of theirs, even if yours ended well.
Also, avoid offering a condolence that puts the onus on the person to do something. You want to lessen their burden, not add to it. “Say something that has closure within itself, like ‘I’m so sorry to hear what’s going on for you.’ And then, ‘I’ll follow up with you later,’” advises Silk. “Not ‘Please call me,’ or ‘How are you doing?’”
It’s never helpful to say you know how someone is feeling, or offer advice about what the person should do – everybody grieves and solves problems in their own way. “Very often, well-meaning people tell a widow that she should clean out his closets,” she says. “This is not a good idea.”
If you are going to say something on social media, be careful not to reveal information publicly before the person has a chance to do so. Sharing something before the people affected do is a surefire way to upset people in the inner ring.
Finally, don’t tell them that any good will come from what’s happened – like eventually you’ll be stronger for this. Silk offers this cautionary tale of a religious neighbour of hers who, when her adult son died, had someone remark to her that “God must have needed another angel.” Her answer? “Yes, but not as much as I needed my son.”