What Not to Say When There are No Words
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. 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 [my] patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That's the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don't say it. Don't, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don't need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don't say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don't say, “This is really bringing me down.”
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.
Comfort IN, dump OUT.The Ring Theory is a brilliant prescription for how best to interact with someone going through a crisis. It captures something we intuitively know yet too often fail to practice. In fact, it probably should be posted on hospital room doors and on entrances to shiva homes. However, for all of its brilliance, the Ring Theory takes something for granted that, unfortunately, is not a given at all. The theory provides guidance for those choosing to engage. But ask anyone who has gone through a crisis and he will tell you, the majority of people in his life didn’t comfort or dump, neither in nor out. They simply disappeared. Yes, at the moment of crisis, family, friends and community often rise to the occasion. But what happens when the acute crises passes? How present are we in the lives of those we claim to care deeply about when the urgency subsides and the catastrophe dissipates? As time goes on, without consciously intending to, many take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, leaving the afflicted person feeling forgotten, neglected, insignificant and alone. What the “Ring Theory” doesn’t account for is that doing nothing and staying silent towards someone struggling with illness, loss, divorce or unemployment can be more painful than saying or doing the wrong thing. Sadly, there are many in our community suffering from illness, loss and other sources of pain. Simply put - they rely on us, their friends and community, to care enough to enter the Ring. Perhaps we will be towards the center of the circle, or maybe we will be in one of the outside concentric rings. But the worst thing we could do is to disappear from the picture altogether. Rabbi Grajower suggests, “One of the hardest facets of going through an illness or tragedy is the profound sense of loneliness that accompanies such tribulations… In my experience, the best way to help that person/family feel less isolated is to reach out frequently, with very short messages. Even now, a few people text me every Friday to wish me a good Shabbos. Some friends call or text randomly just to let me know they are thinking of me. These simple messages, which take only a few seconds to send, can be extremely touching and powerful in combatting the loneliness.” Reach out, visit, send a text, spontaneously drop off flowers or a Challah, invite for a meal, or just let them know that you pray for them, think about them, and empathize with them. Find the important balance between showing up and providing them necessary space. It is so hard to see people we care about in pain. It is even more challenging when there is nothing we can do to relieve it, reverse it or make it go away. At those times, our responsibility is to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro, to grab on to the burden and do our small part to carry it. Knowing we are davening from the depths of our hearts, doing tangible practical things and making sure to only comfort in can make it the smallest bit lighter for those that we love and care about.
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