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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…



  1. Oh, Tanya!
    I am in grief – and feeling the magical support of those circles. It has been amazing. And hard, and sad, and uplifting, and overflowing with love.
    The people who have reached out to me again and again have astounded me, have filled me with gratitude, have asked me again and again to show up with my butterflies when I can, when my heart is filled and ready to share.
    I have asked in simple ways and in complex ways. I’ve used Facebook to mend my heart. I’ve reached out for love, reached out for support – and every single time I have received more than I would have guessed possible.
    This model of rings – yes, it is so. It is true. Your description of comfort – is completely accurate.
    This is what it is to receive in grief. This is what it is to ask.
    Thank you. Big love and butterflies to you, my friend,

    • Oh Beauty…I am so sorry about your grief. And I am heartened to know you are asking for what you need…and receiving. So much love to you.

  2. It’s funny — I came across this Ring Model toward the end of last year, when I was mired in illness. I was experiencing severe mental illness, to the point where I went to a consult for electroconvulsive therapy; they also tested me for a rare form of brain infection. After two months of psychiatric crisis, my body also began to fall apart, and I endured CT scans and extraordinary blood draws because they thought I had cancer. (I don’t.)

    But it was also the first time that I, as someone who has been living with mental illness for decades, actually responded to people when they made tut-tut noises and said, “If there’s anything I can do…” I used to interpret this as, “I care.” And my response, which would always be, “Thank you, I’ll let you know,” meant, “Thank you, and I will not ask you for help because I don’t know what kind of help I need.”

    This time, things were falling apart so rapidly that I actually turned to my husband and said, “People are asking if they can help. What do we need?”

    It turned out that we needed a lot. He set up a Care Calendar, and people signed up to sit with me on different days. There were rotating shifts. I have other thoughts about how people react differently to a psychiatric crisis, as opposed to a physical crisis (hint: no one sends cards or flowers for the former, but such things poured in for the latter) — but the point of this story is to say that asking for help as someone from the middle of the circle is a skill that sometimes needs to be learned.

    This time, when I began to experience a psychiatric crisis, I asked my friends to send flowers. And I received flowers.

    I love the How to Comfort IN tips that you offered. I wish that people were more aware of them. I wish that people applied them to things other than cancer or death. Thank you for writing this.

    x E

    • My heart lifted with the word “received”. What a powerful word. And what a powerful gift to the people in your life.
      Thank you for sharing your experience. Thank you for being here.
      Love love,

  3. Oh honey, this is so wonderful. (i just love your writing. and this topic? double-love.)

    I’m currently witnessing the end-stages of transition of an old college friend who I only reconnected with on Facebook a couple of years ago. I’ve seen how a bunch of us from college reach out to each other – in that outer circle – and how, in our distant and far-away places, we try to “comfort in” her closest friends and children. I would never have put it like this, but I love putting it like this. I’m going to share your article with them; I think it’s its own form of “comfort in.”

    Sadly, I’m also in an inner circle for one of my oldest and dearest friends as she goes through a scary-ass cancer diagnosis (f’in stupid cancer). I’m finding that, as the news spreads and other friends become aware, we in the inner circle wind up comforting those further out. I’ve found that, in a strange way, by helping them get real about what is happening, I have an occupation – just “being-with” – and that helps me. So, I think there is something to “comfort out” from inside too. (although, i expect, probably not for long.) (methinks i’ll be sharing this post of yours w/my peeps in this circle too.)

    Thank you again for your luscious, thoughtful writing sweetie.
    Smooches to you,

    • I am here and I am sorry.
      Love to you, Beautiful Light.


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