Given that three friends I care about are struggling with loss this month, it was timely to discover an op-ed piece about supporting someone who is terminally ill or bereaved. The author, a sort of Miss Manners with a clinical psychology degree, has developed a simple method of making sure you never, ever say the wrong thing to a friend in serious crisis. Because we want to show kindness, of course, at such a time. And we may fret deeply about putting our foot in our mouth, instead of our arms around our friend’s shoulders.
Susan Silk calls her method the “Ring Theory.” And it really is very simple. You draw a bull’s-eye pattern. In the centre circle you put the person who’s got cancer or just lost her sister or has been badly injured in an accident. You place yourself in one of the surrounding rings according to how close you are to her inner circle. Maybe your position is just one step away from her spouse; maybe you float like a satellite in the distant periphery.
From there you follow a simple formula. You direct only words of comfort towards the centre – that is, towards the person in the middle and all those who are in circles more interior than yours. And then all your emotional baggage – your terror, your self-pity, your sense of loss, your deep-seated ickiness over the sight of blood and mutilation – is allowed to flow only in the other direction, towards the outer rings, the hangouts of people less close.
I love Susan’s invention (which, incidentally, was spurred at least in part by a colleague who said “this isn’t about you” when she was banned from visiting after Susan’s breast cancer surgery). “Comfort in, dump out” is Susan’s motto. The Ring Theory helps address an age-old awkwardness, and will most certainly soothe the people most in need of support.
That’s all we want to do, after all, is soothe. We love our friends. And besides, who enjoys the taste of shoelaces? Blerg.