Ring Theory, Pandemic Edition: Comfort In, Dump Out, Switch.
Usually, with trauma and grief, there’s a single person or a couple or one family who is at the core of what’s happened. I love psychologist Susan Silk’s theory on how to be most helpful to the person(s) suffering: she says you should think of the afflicted — say the person with the illness or the individual who has lost a partner — in the center of a very small circle. Then you draw a circle in your mind around them — that circle is the person who is closest to the one(s) in the center. Continue to add circles as many times as you need to and in each larger ring, put the next closest people.
When you are done, you have what Susan calls a “Kvetching Order.” The rules are simple: the person(s) in the center ring can say anything to anyone in the bigger circles; they can complain and moan and whine and say inappropriate things whenever they feel like it. They do not have to be cheery or brave. That’s the only bonus of being the center ring person.
When you’re talking to someone in a ring smaller than yours, the goal is to help, to comfort, to listen. Not to give advice or try to fix it. Maybe offer a hug, or a pot roast. If you want to cry or complain about what’s happened, you can — just make sure you’re doing it with someone in a ring larger than yours. See diagram: comfort in, dump out. This way, not only are you comforting the person at the center of the storm, you’re taking care of their support folks too. And when each person dumps out, they’re doing it with someone who has more capacity to hear it.
That brings me to right now. I’ve been thinking about this theory and about how currently everybody is in the center circle. Everybody in the world is grieving in some way. I keep hearing and thinking about how the world feels smaller, and more connected, how we truly are in this together. The only problem with that I’m realizing, is that if everyone’s in the center of the storm, who are we dumping out to? When is it your time to be comforted? Your child’s? Your spouse’s? Your parent’s? We haven’t had the opportunity to read up on how to support the whole world during a global disaster, of course, so we are all just winging it.
And some days or hours, it’s enough. And sometimes, it’s like, how are we going to make it to Friday?
So I have a suggestion: what if we adopt Susan’s theory for this global crisis but acknowledge that the person (or country or neighborhood or family member) in the middle will change every few days or few minutes? But when that sufferer is in the middle, we allow them to dump out completely and without guilt. And we comfort in. All in.
Maybe tonight at dinner, while you are eating whatever your quarantine cabinets and your creativity allows, you can take turns going around the table being the center of this moment, the center of this crisis. Each member of the family gets to curse (age dependent, of course) and cry and bemoan their losses (people, job, prom, the track season, freedom, privacy, normalcy) without anyone fixing it or interrupting. Switch being the center and repeat until the circle of your family is complete.
Perhaps by allowing our individual suffering to be heard and comforted, our collective global grief will be eased bit by bit. Comfort in, dump out.