How not to say the wrong thing
It is natural to struggle to find the right words to say to a friend or loved one who is going through a tough time - whether it's serious illness, depression, a nasty break up, miscarriage, loss or death. You know they need support and you may feel the urge to help by offering different perspectives, silver linings, and advice. You may have similar stories to share and want to commiserate. Or, given that their journey is painful to watch, you may confide in them how difficult it is for you to witness their suffering.
Your own pain and your desire to "fix" are common and well-intentioned and we've all faced situations where others are suffering and we share in their suffering. We love our family and friends, even our co-workers so that we want to express our empathy for them and our solidarity with them. Sometimes, their pain is our pain.
It is also natural to offer meaningless cliches ('oh, I'm sure you'll be FINE'), which don't help as it simply makes you feel as though your very real emotions are not valid as the person you are talking to has shut them down in one sentence. Or to offer comparisons to try and offer a level of understanding or give examples of other people who have been through similar difficult times and are 'fine' now. Again, this rarely provides comfort, but again belittles their fears and worries and makes them feel as though they cannot speak freely.
We need to be careful about what we say to whom. Yes, the pain that your good friend is feeling is very much affecting you. But, you shouldn't tell him that. That would only add to his pain, and your job is to comfort him, and not burden him with your pain on top of his. There are others that we can share the very real pain that we experience when we see our loved ones hurting.
Clinical psychologist, Susan Silk knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of inappropriate remarks. When she was hospitalised following a breast cancer diagnosis a colleague announced that she wanted to visit Susan after her surgery, and when Susan said she didn't feel like having visitors her colleague's response was "This isn't just about you." (!!). "It's not?" Susan wondered. "My breast cancer is not about me? It's about you?"
After Susan Silk’s disheartening experience, she was inspired to create Ring Theory - a model of caring that clearly indicates appropriate versus inappropriate interactions with everyone around you during times of crisis or tragedy. Whether hard times have fallen on you or someone else, the basic idea is COMFORT IN: DUMP OUT.
Imagine concentric circles. In the centre ring is the person or people who are the most directly affected. In the next ring are close relatives; the next ring holds true friends and more distant relatives; the ring after that holds acquaintances like neighbours, colleagues, and casual friends.
The spotlight should be focused on the centre ring and that is where the focus of the caregiving should be. The light will be diffused across all the rings, which become more dimly lit as they span ever outward. The theory dictates that it is appropriate to offer comfort, and no complaints, to those in brighter rings than yours. If you want to complain or seek your own comfort, it is only appropriate to impose upon people in your ring or better yet, the people in rings that are more dimly lit. That’s because they are naturally less directly afflicted by this crisis.
The spotlight also demonstrates a key component of offering comfort: Never steal the spotlight by comparing their situation to something you have been through and suddenly turn the situation to focus on you.
For example, if someone experiences a tragedy like a miscarriage, a friend might decide to confide in that person that they are now fearful about their own pregnancy and the grandmother-to-be might express their sorrow at never knowing their grandchild. They’ve essentially informed you that you’ve placed a great burden on them which is not supportive.
Or a friend could suddenly confide that they too, had had a miscarriage and hadn't told anyone, and that all of their pain has come flooding back. This has now taken the spotlight from the person who has recently suffered loss, and is now on the other friend.
I'm sure we've all experienced similar. I found it exhausting dealing with other peoples' reactions to my diagnosis. I didn't hold it against them as I know I would have been heartbroken if any of my family or closest friends had received a similar diagnosis. But I did feel like a burden. In the end I used my husband as a buffer and he delivered any updates and fielded any questions.
Hopefully this helps explain a little and will make people think a bit before they speak. I still believe that the worst thing is to say NOTHING AT ALL. So please don't worry too much about saying the wrong thing. But if you follow this theory, hopefully you wont go too wrong!