A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with leukemia. She asked on facebook not to be inundated with concerned messages but for people to send her stupid kitty videos, cartoons, and things to make her laugh.
Her husband, a rabbi, recently posted this article. I think it is right on, and such an elegant way of expressing what is sometimes difficult to otherwise grasp: How to be sure you are offering comfort, instead of releasing your own discomfort at someone dealing with trauma.
Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.
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. One of Susan’s 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.
I often think about this when offering comfort in a shiva minyan or other rabbinic setting. How can I be in this space totally devoted to comforting this person? How can I make sure that my comfort is not part of this equation, especially for the person who is hurting? When I arrive at a shiva house, mourners often ask me if I would like water, what can they get me, would I like a chair, etc. I always try to answer in a way that teaches: “No, thank you; I am here to help you,” or, “That’s all right, I will get it my self — is there anything that you need?” with a few words about Jewish mourning rituals, and how visitors are supposed to be serving the mourner, as though the mourner were the honored guest in his or her own home. It is probably the hardest thing for mourners to get used to — being helped. But we can all do our best to offer comfort inward in the Kvetching Order, and to seek reflective space with those further outside in the Kvetching Order from us.