DeathWise® Blog

Ring Theory

  • By: Rolf Erickson
  • Published: July 18, 2020, 899 days ago

I just read a very insightful OP-ED piece written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman and published in the Los Angeles Times. It was titled: “How not to say the wrong thing.”

After Susan’s surgery for breast cancer, a friend wanted to come visit her. When Susan said she wasn’t ready for visitors, her friend replied: “This isn’t just about you.” Susan thought: “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

Obviously, her friend was upset about Susan’s cancer and surgery, and was hoping to gain some solace by visiting Susan. But this is not what Susan needed at that point, nor did her friend’s response make Susan feel any better. After all, she was the one facing the recovery from surgery and uncertainty of survival.

After her friend Katie suffered a brain aneurysm and had a similar experience with a friend, Susan created a visual guide to help people avoid sharing their personal angst with the person going through a crisis. She calls it Ring Theory, and the article explains how it works.

“Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. 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.”

The rules are:

“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.”

The Ring can be used for medical crises, legal predicaments, the loss of a friend or family member, or anytime someone is facing a challenging situation and needs support.

This article provides many valuable details about what to say, when and how to say it, and even more importantly, how not to say the wrong thing.

Give it a read, and then give it a try next time someone needs support. Someday, it could be you.

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”

Illustration by Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times