Say the right thing
Elizabeth Newman, McKnight's Senior Editor
The friend meant well, of course, and my mother was able to see the purity of heart from which the crying originated.
But it's an excellent example of what Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the LA Times wrote about in an Op-Ed this week describing the “Ring Theory of Kvetching.” This theory works not only for those in a medical crisis, but also when you see coworkers or loved ones undergoing any sort of major difficulty, whether it be an impending lay-off or financial trouble.
For those of you not in my tribe, kvetching is complaining, and it can be elevated into an art form. The Ring Theory, which can be seen here, is illustrated as the person experiencing the traumatic event – the ill person, the soon-to-be-unemployed, or a recently divorced individual – who is in the center of the ring. In the immediate next circle is the spouse or family member. After that are close friends, followed by coworkers, followed by what Silk calls the “lookie-loos.”
This doesn't mean you can't feel terrible for a coworker injured in a car accident. Of course you care. What it means is that you can't show up at the hospital and start wringing your hands in front of her husband or child. It means you talk about your feelings to your other coworkers or the person who only tangentially knows the injured party. You may call this gossip; I call it a way to make sure you're not dumping on people with a lot of their plates. As Silk, a psychologist, writes “Comfort IN, dump OUT.”
What you say to the injured person is “I'm so sorry. Would you like to talk about it?” and then accept “no” for an answer. You listen. What you say to the husband is, “Here's a casserole.” What you say to the close friend is, “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
This can be extremely difficult if you feel empathy — if you have been seriously ill yourself, for example. People “in the know,” especially in the cancer community, often want to help by sharing their experiences. Many people reflexively say things to the Center of the Ring person like, “You must have a positive attitude,” or, “God never gives us more than we can handle.”
When you say these things, you are making it about you, not the person you are trying to help. My mother remembers shrieking at someone who told her to have a positive attitude something along the lines of, “Well, if YOU ever have cancer, let's see how positive you are about it!”
Ninety percent of life is about showing up: It's about taking the freezable meal to the new mother; going to a friend's parent's funeral; and doing the absolute best job you can every day for your residents. But by taking a step back and asking about where we are in the Ring Theory of Kvetching, we can ascertain how to be the most comfort to those we care about.