Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Ring Theory of Kvetching

I dread condolence calls. I dread them because I’m just not good at that sort of thing, which begs the question: Who is?

But I think some people just have the knack.

I don’t.

And the thing about not having the knack for that sort of thing is that it makes no sense, since I suffered my first bereavement at the age of 13. I, of all people, should know how to act and what to say in the presence of grief.


A Cretin

But no. Invariably, I stick my foot in my mouth and then give an inward cringe when I realize what a cretin I’ve been. Which tends to reinforce in my mind the idea that I should never. Ever. Visit anyone bereaved. I’m just bad at it.

Today, all that changed forever. Not because I suddenly got really good at paying condolence calls but because I read an article that outlined a logical way to stay on track and avoid offending people. The premise of the article was concise and once the concept of dealing with grief was outlined, it was clear that it would also be an easy method to remember.

Now this is good, because we not only need this method for ourselves, but for our children and for instance, the kids that are mentored in the programs run by Kars for Kids, the nonprofit organization in which I serve as communications writer. We don’t learn this stuff in school. We need a quick and dirty method for getting down the niceties of this and more important, for transmitting it to others.


Ring Theory

Judy Levy of Ricochet writes up an article from the LA Times, How Not to Say the Wrong Thing, by clinical psychologist Susan Silk and arbitrator/mediator Barry Goldman. The article speaks about addressing emotions related to grief or distress according to the “Ring Theory of kvetching.” Basically, it all boils down to this: “Comfort in, dump out.”

Silk and Goldman illustrate the klutziness of some people in dealing with difficulties to show how the theory works. They offer the example of Susan who is in the hospital after having surgery for breast cancer. Susan lets it be known she doesn’t want visitors, but her colleague insists on visiting her, telling Susan, “This isn’t just about you.”

Oh SMH!* That’s the kind of stupid thing I’m afraid I’ll say to a friend in distress. I mean, not just about you?? Really? 

From the article:
 "It's not?" Susan wondered. "My breast cancer is not about me? It's about you?"

The article then goes on to describe Katie, who is recovering from a brain aneurysm. Her friend comes to visit and then quickly leaves the room, telling Katie’s husband Pat, who is waiting in the hall:
 "I wasn't prepared for this. I don't know if I can handle it."

Really??? SHE can’t handle this? What about Pat, Katie’s HUSBAND? He has an easier time dealing with the sight of his wife in such a frighteningly dangerous state of ill health?

So back to the theory, comfort in, dump out: Picture a ring. In the center is the person in the most pain, for instance, Susan or Katie. Then draw a slightly larger circle around the center and in there put the name of the person closest to the one suffering the trauma, for instance, Pat, Katie’s husband. In each subsequently larger circle, you can put the names of people in descending importance or relationship to the sufferer.

Here’s how it goes, you can extend comfort from your circle inward, for instance from you to Susan. But you have to dump out, meaning you can’t vent inward to Susan. You have to vent to someone in the circle that’s larger than your own.


Can I Help?

So you could say to Susan or Katie, “I’m so sorry you’re suffering. How can I help? Can I bring you a pot of soup?”

That is comfort in, extending comfort toward the center of the circle.

But let’s say what really comes to mind is how awful Susan looks and you’re her close friend, you’re SHOCKED. You would never say that to Susan or to her husband, because they are in rings that are relatively smaller than yours, they are IN and you are OUT.

Instead you can tell someone in a larger ring, such as a colleague, for instance, “Wow, Susan looks really awful. It freaks me out to see her like that.”


Dumping Out

That is dumping out, toward the outer ring.

The beauty of this is you can say whatever you need or want to say, as long as you say it to someone in a larger ring than yours!

Now isn’t that simple? You can even map it out before you go. Print out this handy-dandy diagram I made for you, based on the one that appeared in Ricochet and in the LA Times, and stick it to your fridge with a magnet.
(photo credit: Varda Epstein)

The main thing, as Judy Levin of Ricochet says, is not to worry. “You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.”

*Smacking my head.


  1. I saw the original article and it's brilliant. However, there is another theory of how to handle shiva calls in particular, and it's part of our tradition. When you visit a mourner, you don't say anything to them until they speak, and you take your cues from them as to what they want to talk about. If they want to tell stories about their relative, let them, and you can contribute any stories you know about them. If they want to talk about the news, then you talk about the news. If they don't want to talk at all, that's fine too.

    All the cliches that people hear about how it is G-d's will, or that it will get better, etc. -- you don't say anything like that, because nobody asked you. If at some point, the person wants to share their perspective with you, whether it's because you have been through something similar or because they feel very close to you and they want your input, then they will ask you. At which point you could still say something stupid, but it improves your chances.

    1. Good point, Karen.

      Me? I'm the bozo who will still mess things up in the shiva house even after waiting for the mourner to acknowledge me and have his/her say. So I'm REALLY glad I came across the Comfort in, Dump out, idea. I know it will stand me in good stead.

    2. So thoughtful Karen. We often just talk too much when we ought to just shut up and let our presence speak for itself.

  2. Genius. A wonderful tool for an extremely difficult but necessary social function. Thank you, Varda! In the merit of publishing this and taking it on as your own guide, may Hashem bless you with an easier time "in the trenches."

    1. Amen! Funny how hard it is for me to put myself out there, when I have no trouble spilling my guts to the world on the Internet. I'm glad that shiva calls and visits to the sick must be done in person, because otherwise, I'd find a way to do that electronically, too!! Hashem knows I need to be getting out there, I just need the tools. Like this one.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Ruti!

  3. I have recently dealt with the deaths of several colleagues, none really close friends, but my heart goes out to their families. This article really helps. I love the idea of waiting for the mourner to speak, but the "visitations" we have in the midwest are a nightmare. The family stands as though they are in a receiving line and people file past. A recent visitation turned out literally hundreds of people. I HATE that tradition. This also really speaks to the importance of stepping outside your little world and being there for people - it may freak me out, or upset me, but it's so important to others that I take the time and visit. It's NOT about me. It's about caring for others. Thank you!

    1. Thank YOU, for your kind comments, christinam. I'm glad you found the ring theory helpful. I know it helped me!

  4. I'm not sure how I stumbled on this but I think it's great. I'm 54 and lost my husband suddenly 1 year ago to a heart attack. He was WONDERFUL! I then had to put our first, then second dog down months later and a few months apart ... my house went silent. I work from home so the seclusion has been vital in my grief. Family and friends have respected my request for privacy, sometimes dropping off dinner and talking if I need to. Noone has pushed themselves on me or said anything offensive. There were so many people that came to his service and when I sent my thank yous, I expressed my appreciation for them coming out to be there with us (daughter and grandson, age 6) in our grief, especially on a Friday night. I wrote in almost every card that I understand sometimes it's hard to go to these things, but as the widow, it made me feel proud for my husband. Many of his male co-workers came, which can be very hard for men, but I made sure they knew how much it meant to us that he was represented by his workplace. So to anyone who is not sure if they would be welcome at a service if they were not particularly close to the person, I want to say it is very much appreciated by the family. The fact that you would take the time to send a card, leave a message, or attend a service is heartwarming and never forgotten. It's helps in the healing process. And don't worry about finding the right words, the simple "I'm sorry" is just fine.

    1. Thanks for sharing these words here, Darlene. I'm so sorry you lost your husband at such a young age and so suddenly. I understand what you're saying because I lost my father suddenly when he was just shy of 54, and one of the things that comforted me was how so many people showed up for the funeral. It made us, his family, know he was loved, appreciated, and missed. That was a huge comfort.

      Now that I think back on it, I can't remember anyone saying anything that upset me during that time of grief. Everyone who made the effort to visit is remembered and appreciated.