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Taking your place in someone else's grief

A couple of months after Kurt Cobain died, I came across an op-ed piece too far gone to retrieve that has stayed with me since. The editor noted that most articles he read about Kurt’s suicide began with some variation of:

I met Kurt when… I first heard Kurt’s music when… When I learned about Kurt’s death, I…

He was trying to point to the self-serving quality that presents itself when tragedy erupts. The way we want to get in on the drama. Take our place in the fray. It was a dark and dismal commentary on the human condition…vultures and buzzards feasting on the carnage of crisis. And a perspective that resonated and has stayed with me.

But I read something last year that has softened that somewhat. We all experience a myriad of emotions when learn of tragedy. And we need to put it somewhere. WHERE we put it…that’s the key.*

option-1An article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman called “How not to say the wrong thing” was widely and frequently shared on social media last April. (My dear friend Lauren Bacon turned me onto it and also wrote an incredibly helpful post on this same topic). The popularity of Silk and Goldman's article can be attributed to the fact that it demystifies the thing that paralyzes us when faced with someone else’s grief, trauma, loss or sadness, which is: HOW NOT TO SAY THE WRONG THING.

You see, Silk came up with a genius technique (called the Ring Theory) to help people discern what role they ought to play in someone else’s crisis.

It’s like this. Draw a circle and write the name of the person who is GOING THROUGH the trauma. The person who just lost a loved one. The one who’s just been diagnosed. This is about THEM.

Then draw a circle around that person, including the name of their immediate support (partner, best friend), and then another circle naming the next level of support (kids, friends, neighbours). Draw as many circles as you need to until you get to your “station” as it relates to that person.

The rules are simple. Your job is to comfort the person in the circle smaller than yours. If you have any sadness, worry, concerns, grief, rage, you are only to share it with someone in a circle larger than your own (their job is to comfort YOU).

Comfort IN, dump OUT, Silk says.

Beautifully elegant. And we need to know how to offer comfort.

How to comfort IN

Some of us are born with this ability. Most of us need to learn it. I've had to learn it. Messily. Ever messily. And here’s what I now know.

Comfort looks like safety

Imagine that the person you are trying to comfort is paddling in a small boat on turbulent waters.  You are on the safe shores of the riverbank. And you have a long, sturdy rope and a super strong grip. You have two choices. You can try to swim out into the whitecaps and get in the boat with them OR you can throw them a line. (Hint: throw them the line).

Allow them to go through their own experience and process, safe in the knowledge that you are holding the lifeline, nice and secure.

Comfort looks like presence

You being there, holding the rope, not fixing, not placating, not reframing, not comparing, not lessening, not philosophizing, not rationalizing, not spiritualizing, not justifying, THAT’S presence. Presence doesn’t have the perfect words. It doesn’t need to. Allow them to find their own words and meaning.

Just BE there. Hold the person and their pain and grief and suffering in the light. If they want space, they will ask for it. And you will not need to make up that you’ve done something wrong. Presence allows for sands to shift.

Comfort looks like soup

Or pad thai. Or a shoveled walkway. Or a trip to the library with their kid.

What you can’t say in words, you can say in gestures. They will be appreciated, more than you may ever know.

How to dump OUT

Oh my Darling. I’m sorry if you’re in a ring smaller than someone else, then you are in it. You are in this crisis. Yes. I am truly sorry.

Ask for what you need. You are not a burden.

Keep asking as your needs shift and change. What you needed when the crisis was burning and the pain was acute will transmute as it becomes more chronic.

You have an unlimited store of karmic asks saved up. Ask. Ask. Ask. And ask some more.

Be as specific as your grief will allow. If you don’t know what you need, ask for help discerning your asks. Truly.

There are concentric rings of care around you, unseen, but there. Waiting for your ask.

The truth is this: none of us escapes grief, loss and sorrow. Knowing how to be with each others’ tears softens the hardest places of our beings.

Will you please share in the comments what you know about comforting and being comforted? It helps.


* I can't help but wonder if the writers speaking to the impact of Kurt’s suicide were inadvertently following this model… voicing their outrage to readers further removed from the epicenter of the crisis. Dumping OUT. And if frankly, that's what most writing it about. Still pondering...

Buckling carpets and raising the kindness quotient

The most acute physical pain I’ve ever experienced was dropping a plate, edge-side down, on the nail of my big toe last June. It was a screaming, searing, raging HOT pain that wouldn’t allow me to find tears. Only expletives. Eventually it subsided. And with it, the memory. I’d completely forgotten about it until this morning, when I tripped on the rug in the living room and noticed that the toe nail has broken and is peeling off at the site of impact. Which is just above the cuticle. Lovely.

The most acute emotional pain I’ve ever endured was losing my Mama. Period.

My big toe is a pretty inelegant but apt metaphor for the grief I (still) feel about my mother. Up until yesterday, if I'd have thought about it, I would have said it was healing and looking perfectly fine. We go about our days, my toe and I, but then out of the blue, the carpet buckles and the toe reminds me that it’s neither completely nor perfectly fine. No, not really. It still needs tending to. And I can get mad at the toe and tell it that it’s unreasonable that it should act up so long after the plate incident. The big toe don’t care. It’s going to come apart when it’s going to come apart.

For many around me, this year has felt heavy with loss and grief and departures.

Maybe even for you personally. The holidays are like that carpet. Beautiful to look at, but a veritable minefield of emotional tripping hazards. Recipes, songs, ornaments, traditions, cards. Every last one a reminder about where the healing is still a work in progress.

No matter how much time has elapsed.

My wishes::

If you are in pain, please take this time to reach out to those around you. Swaddle yourself with the warmth and care that is available to you, if you only ask for what you need. Yes, your people are indeed busy. AND they will take time for you. (And no, you are not a burden.) Please tread lightly on the carpet.

As for the rest of us, let’s ramp up our kindness quotient. As queues are long and patience is thin, let’s imagine that everyone is in some kind of pain, which accounts for short tempers and irritability. Let’s be outrageous with gratitude and generosity and kindness. Let’s smile wider, tip bigger, let someone in, pay it forward.

You never know who has just tripped or is about to trip on the rug.