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.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

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Prior to European colonization of North America, millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. By the turn of the 20th century, those numbers had dropped to less than 1,000. The deliberate decimation of buffalo herds was a direct attack on the Native American people, who colonizers saw as an obstacle to their "Manifest Destiny," and who the U.S. government engaged in a systematic attempt to eliminate or force into docile submission.

For thousands of years, bison were a sacred, inseparable part of life for Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains, used for food, shelter, utensils, and clothing, in addition to spiritual and emotional well-being. Wiping out the bison population nearly wiped out the Native tribes they were connected to.

Though bison numbers have increased significantly thanks to conservation efforts, governments are still grappling with the ugly legacy, and some municipalities are taking steps to try to repair some of the damage done. As one example, the city of Denver, Colorado has taken the step of giving some of the city's bison population managed by Denver Parks and Recreation to Native American tribes engaged in bison conservation efforts.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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