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Talking to people who are going through tough times

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This post is something I've been meaning to write for years; I'm finally writing it as a starting point/background for the next couple of posts I'm planning to write.


I've noticed that when someone is grieving, other people who talk to the grieving person often talk entirely about themselves.

For example, my friend Annie's mother died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. While Annie was performing the emotionally difficult task of going through her mother's apartment, a neighbor stopped by. The neighbor was distraught, but it quickly became clear that she wasn't there to talk about Annie's mother; she was there to recount her own life story, including (iIrc) the death of her husband some decades earlier. My vague memory is that the neighbor spent about twenty minutes telling us that story, sobbing for much of that time, without ever asking Annie a single question or expressing any sympathy. The neighbor's pain at the loss of her husband was real, and there's nothing wrong with that—but her pain didn't have anything to do with what Annie was going through, and the neighbor should not have chosen to vent her pain in Annie's direction. The neighbor should've found someone else to talk to.

The monologue-about-one's-own-life happens in other contexts, too, of course; people sometimes just get very focused on their own lives. But it's particularly unfortunate when one person is going through a difficult time, and other people want to make the situation all about them.

I posted a link a while ago to an article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman about what they call the “ring theory of kvetching”: how not to say the wrong thing to someone who's grieving or dealing with difficulties. The general idea is that when you're interacting with people who are closer to the center of the problem than you are, you should focus on giving comfort to them; if you need to complain or talk about how you're feeling, you can do that by talking to people who are further from the center than you are. For example, if someone is grieving a loss, then when you talk to them, focus on them; don't make it about you.

(Unless they explicitly tell you they would rather you talk about yourself, of course. But even then, check in with them now and then; they may want you to focus on them occasionally even if not at all times.)

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me, it's very tempting to make any given situation all about me. So the ring theory is a useful paradigm, a good way to remind myself to pause every now and then and tell myself, “It's not about you.”

One specific line from the ring theory article I would take a little further than they took it: They wrote, “If you're going to open your mouth [when talking to someone in an inner ring], ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support.” I totally agree with that, but I would also go further: I'd say to start by thinking about what that particular person will find comforting and supportive. Because even when people do try to follow the general idea of the ring theory, they often say things that they would find comforting and supportive but that the person they're talking to, who may have a different worldview, may find upsetting and unpleasant.

(I've seen this issue become especially prominent across religious divides. For example, if an atheist posts a note saying “my father is dying and I'm very sad and upset,” it's probably not a good idea to reply “It's all according to God's plan.” And if a religious person posts a note saying, “my father is dying; please keep us in your prayers,” then it's probably not the ideal time to suggest that religion is evil. In either direction, it's generally not too hard to find something you can say that they might find comforting and that doesn't conflict with your own beliefs, like “I'm so sorry” or “I'm thinking of you.”)

I think part of what's going on in these situations is that many of us don't have good models for what to say to someone who's grieving or dealing with other difficult stuff, nor much experience to fall back on. We don't want to say the wrong thing, but we're not necessarily sure what the wrong thing is.

But I've been noticing lately that Facebook seems to actually be helping with that, because there are often models for what to say right there in front of you. I'm seeing a lot of people doing a good job of this lately, at least by my standards: saying sympathetic and caring things, and focusing on the person who's experiencing the difficulty rather than on themselves. When I'm one of the people commenting, I worry sometimes about repeating the same phrasing someone else has already used in a comment; but then I remind myself that the point is not to come up with some unique and brilliant and clever thing to say; the point is to express sympathy to someone who could use some.

Mention of Facebook leads into my next topic, so I think I'll stop here.


I finished writing this post a week ago, but I've been holding off on posting it 'til the rest of the posts in this series were ready. But I've been having a hard time making the next one coherent. So I'll just post this one for now, with more to follow sometime soonish.

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