Know Your Circle–Using Ring Theory To Support Those Grieving

Using ring theory (Goldman & Silk) to help those who are grieving.

When my daughter was stillborn, I found myself exhausted. Her death had drained me and left me very little emotional strength to deal with anything or anyone else.

I wanted support without any engagement, but that seemed like a lot to ask for.

There were few people who would simply let me unload. Most people wanted me to reciprocate so they could let me know how hard Dorothy’s death had been. I barely had the emotional capability to process my own grief, how could I be expected to comfort anyone else?

I shared my frustrations with a good friend and her response was “Those people are talking to the wrong circle.”

I wanted to tell her that SHE was talking to the wrong circle, because I had no idea what she meant by that statement. How were circles going to be of any help to me? Although I was slightly worried that I was entering another conversation that I didn’t have the energy for, I let her continue.

She was referring to Ring Theory a concept, developed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, to help someone in a time of crisis.

It is designed to create what Silk and Goldman refer to as a “kvetching order.” Ring Theory helps ensure that the person at the center of the crisis receives only support. The individuals in the inner rings are not responsible for supporting the outer rings.

Comfort IN, unload OUT.

Their concept is applicable to any type of crisis and it is especially beneficial in supporting someone who is grieving.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Draw a circle. In this circle, write the name of the person or persons directly impacted by the crisis or, in the case of grief, the death.
  2. Now, draw a larger circle around the first circle. In this circle, write the names of those next closest to the deceased. (These names are typically close family members.)
  3. Continuing drawing circles around the first two. In each larger circle put the next level of people impacted by the death.

When you are finished you should have a series of concentric circles, much like ripples in a pond.

These are the rings as they relate to this specific death or crisis. The person in the center ring gets to complain and unload on anyone in the outer circles.

Some might wonder if that is fair. But consider this–it is really the only payoff for being in that dreaded center ring.

For people in the outer rings, their primary role is to support those in the inner rings. Yes, it’s a lot of work to be a member of the outer rings, but they are also the people furthest removed from the crisis or the death. That space allows them the emotional energy to support. They are mostly there to listen.

If a member of an outer circle is going to contribute to the conversation, they need to consider if their words are going to be comforting and supportive.

Saying “I’m sorry” or offering to bring someone dinner are examples of comforting IN. Telling someone that all of this talk about death is depressing–that’s an example of something that should be unloaded OUT.

When my friend shared Ring Theory with me, she was abiding by principles of that exact theory. Her acknowledgement of my life in the center ring was just the comfort I needed.

Ring Theory has changed my own perspective on supporting someone in grief.

Before I reach out to a friend or loved one, I make sure that I know my circle.

Ultimately, I know my first responsibility is to ensure I am supporting that person in the center ring. There are many ways for me to provide that comfort. And, if supporting someone who is grieving ever feels like too much, I check my circles to see where I can unload OUT.

Remember–comfort IN, unload OUT, and know your circle.

I know what it’s like to live in that center ring and I know I will have my turn there again. In the meantime, I will continue to use Ring Theory to support others as they take their own turn in the circle no one wants to be in.

Photo by Timothy Paul Smith on Unsplash

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