Don’t Unload on Dying People– Use the Ring Theory Instead

I attend regular group meetings where participants discuss various aspects of death and dying. Group members come from all walks of life and range from young to old. They have diverse belief systems and backgrounds. Therefore it helps to keep an open mind. At these meetings, I normally stay quiet and listen. At our most recent gathering, the subject was dying loved ones and the importance of the ring theory.

A woman we’ll call Emily talked about a dear friend dealing with terminal cancer. This friend had been undergoing treatment, but the cancer had metastasized. He believed his quality of life was suffering. Therefore, he’d made the difficult decision to stop treatment. Like so many cancer patients, he was literally sick of chemotherapy and wanted to enjoy whatever remaining time he had left.

Emily was mad at her friend for making this decision. She wanted to stop visiting because she was so angry. Emily didn’t know what to do.

A few participants encouraged her to visit the friend and reveal that anger. My eyes grew wide as they talked about how Emily “owed it to her friend” to directly communicate her anger and disappointment. Someone even told Emily that it wasn’t all about the sick person.

At that point, I’d heard enough. It is the height of self-importance to believe that a friend’s dying experience should be about us. That it should be about anyone other than the person dying. The idea that we’d send Emily from our meeting believing this was a bit too much to take.

Not on my watch.  

I gently said the following.

“Emily, I encourage you to own these feelings. If you have a support system filled with friends, family or even a professional therapist, talk to them about what you’re feeling. Talk to us. It’s good to explore these emotions. You might even want to write them down in a journal.

But to go into a room where someone is actively dying and unload your anger on them is incredibly cruel. People at the end of life are dealing with a lot. They’re trying to manage their own grieving process. They will soon let go of everything they know and everyone they love. We must not ask them to take on extra burdens and manage their loved ones’ issues at the same time.

This is, most certainly, about your friend. It is not about you.”

I took a deep breath and said no more for the rest of the meeting.

Another participant talked about the ring theory. I’d never heard of this theory, but it brilliantly encapsulates what we all need to remember.  

What’s the ring theory?

A visual illustration of this theory typically involves drawing a center ring. This ring holds the name of whomever is dealing with trauma or illness. It’s the person going through a difficult time.

A slightly larger circle around the first one is filled with the name or names of those closest to that person. This usually includes a partner or significant other. It may also be parents, children or siblings. It really depends on whomever is closest to the one suffering from a crisis.

A larger circle around the first two holds the names of close friends or extended family. More outer circles can be drawn to include neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances. However many rings is needed depends on the person at the center and their levels of support.

Some psychologists call this the “Kvetching Order.”

The leading guideline with ring theory is summed up by four words: Comfort In. Dump Out.

Susan Silk, a psychiatrist facing breast cancer, coined this theory and idea. She said the person in the center, the person going through it, can vent, complain, rant and rave. It’s their right.

According to Silk, “That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.”

Like Emily, those in outer rings can also vent. However, they are only allowed to unload with people in rings past their own. For example, a significant other would “dump out” their negative emotions to friends or colleagues.

Unloading on people within your ring or the person who is suffering doesn’t help them or anyone else.

I knew a girl who was murdered in high school. A classmate cried hysterically to that girl’s mother at the memorial service. There were no words, or knowledge, to correctly frame my absolute horror at the sight of a grieving mother feeling the need to comfort a strange girl she hardly knew. It was sickening. The ring theory can help.

Shine a line elsewhere

We live in a society that encourages self-importance. We post, tweet, and write about how world views and cultural events affects us. We’re preoccupied with what we think. About everything.

It’s our world, we’re made to believe. Other people are just living in it.

Some take that to an extreme. They view even the experiences of others through their own lens and particular point of view.

It’s insane.

For example, imagine you’re about to endure serious surgery. Something you’re feeling nervous about it. How would you feel if your partner told you, in detail, how frightened they were that you might die? Imagine you’re now required to comfort someone else rather than be comforted.

Might not friends or therapists be a better audience for your partner, rather than you, at that point?

That’s what Silk meant by “dump out.”

Good advice exists to help people figure out what to say, and what not to say, when someone is going through a tough time. Add the ring theory illustration to that list.

If you know a person experiencing illness or trauma, you have such an important role to play – that of supportive loved one.

Embrace it. And embrace the person who needs it.

Then save your complaints for other circles.

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