Psychologist's 'Ring Theory' can help you not say the wrong thing to people in grief
Concept by Susan Silk, Graphic by Annie Reneau

It's hard to know what to say when someone you know is going through a crisis. Whether a person has lost a loved one, received a dire medical diagnosis, or is experiencing some other kind of grief, we're often at a loss for words for how to comfort them.

It gets even trickier when we share in some measure of the person's grief. When your friend finds out they have a terminal illness, that's painful for your friend and their family, but also for you. While it's important to honor that, it's also important to recognize that your grief isn't the same as the person afflicted, nor is it the same as their spouse's or children's or parents' grief. It's totally fine to feel the weight of your own sadness and loss, but there are appropriate and inappropriate places to put that weight. For example, saying to a mutual friend, "I can't handle this, it's too devastating" is very different than saying the same thing directly to your friend who just found out they are dying.

Psychologist Susan Silk has created a helpful concept that makes figuring out what to say and what not to say a bit easier. She refers to it as the Ring Theory, and she and author Barry Goldman described it in an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times.

Here's how it works:


First, draw a circle and put the name of the person in crisis in the middle of it. Then draw a ring around that and label it with the people closest to them—spouse, parents, children, etc. Then draw another ring for their intimate friends or other family members they are close to. Next, make a ring for their close co-workers, not-quite-as-close friends, distant relatives, etc., followed by a ring for other people who know them—acquaintances, community members, and such.

These concentric rings represent which direction our words of comfort and empathy should go, and which direction the venting or dumping of our own feelings of grief should go.

The person in the center can say anything they want to anyone, of course. The crisis is theirs and they get all the leeway and grace in how they express their feelings. People in the rings around them can vent their feelings toward people in the larger rings, but not the smaller ones. If we're talking to someone in a smaller ring than we are in, our words should only be comforting and empathetic, such as "I'm so sorry you're going through this," or "What a terrible tragedy, let me bring you a meal to make this time a little easier for you."

Silk explains that when we are talking to a person in a smaller circle from us—someone who is closer to the crisis—the goal is to help. It's appropriate not to offer advice, no matter how helpful we think we're being. It's not an appropriate direction for our personal storytelling or expressions of despair, however sincere. If we feel an impulse to do those things, we should point it outward, toward the people farther from the crisis.

We should never put people in smaller circles in a position of feeling like they need to comfort us. Comfort should move inward through the rings, not outward.

Let's imagine my friend Lee just lost her mother to cancer. I lost my much-loved mother-in-law to pancreatic cancer just six weeks after her diagnosis, but this is Lee's crisis, not mine. As a friend, I'm not going to tell her how much I miss my mother-in-law, describe in detail how hard it was to go through losing her, or go on and on about the meaning of life and death. I'm not going to say those things to her spouse, either. I might say, "I'm so sorry. Cancer really sucks, and this is such a hard thing to go through" and then offer to help watch the kids or bring over a casserole.

Concept by Susan Silk, Graphic by Annie Reneau

If I'm talking to a mutual friend or someone Lee knows peripherally, that's when I might share my own story or how Lee's mom's death is bringing up my own feelings of grief. The key is to make sure I'm pointing that emotional venting of my own toward someone in a larger circle, not a smaller one.

As Silk and Goldman explained, it's not so much what you say as whom you say it to.

"If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that's fine," they wrote. "It's a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring."

"Comfort IN, dump OUT," they added.

Silk and Goldman point out that most of us intuitively know not to dump our feelings on the person in the center of the circle, but we may not be conscientious enough about how we talk to those who are close to the crisis as well. The Ring Theory visual can help us see where it's appropriate to vent and where it's not, and how best to help both those who are grieving and who are in the grieving person's orbit.

It can even help us recognize what we need most when we find ourselves at the center of the circle. All of us will be there at one time or another, and knowing where we are in the rings can help us know how to comfort one another through our grieving processes.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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