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Updated: Jun 18, 2022

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.” “It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?

—Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman developed a concept called

the “Ring Theory.” I found it helpful, so maybe you will too.

I like to call them circles. I put my spin on it, so feel free to read the original article linked.

Platitudes fly your way. People tell you how your grief should look or the "proper" way to deal with a crisis they are not part of. You receive insensitive or ignorant remarks and have no idea how to respond. Some people even demand things of you or are forced to shoulder the reactions of people who do not like your response when you say, gently, "I don't find this helpful." or "I can't make it to your wedding or party because I am not feeling up to it, my dad just died." The audacity! It takes a mature human to give grace to people as they grieve. Grace is needed as we pick up the pieces of our lives to rebuild them or start from scratch.

We won't always know what to say or do. It's important to ground ourselves before supporting another in the heavy. It's ok if you don't pick up the phone every time or text back if you need a time out. There are ways to do that respectfully. It's a good idea to reflect on what kind of relationship you have with the person going through something life-changing. What level of love, support, space, time, and understanding are you willing to give and be part of their healing, accepting that there may be things that aren't fixable but wanting to love them through it anyway. Be honest with yourself and the relationship you have with that person. It can be quite confronting when you assume you are in one circle when you are not. It can be hard on either side to realize that you no longer are in a relationship with this person like you once were, and now with the extra life stressors, it's too obvious to ignore the cracks or craters between you. That is why there are so many relationship ruptures in times of stress. As our capacity lowers for certain behaviours or relationship dynamics, so does our filter and patience. Our circles change over time because we don't always understand what our relationships mean to us and our role in them.

How do we show support for our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, partners, and families in their grief or crisis? Susan Silk, a clinical psychologist, and Barry Goldman came up with Ring Theory after Susan's experience with breast cancer. People offered her unsolicited advice and became offended when it wasn't received as helpful. My family also went through something similar with my dad. One of his old bosses called a handful of times to tell my family how to cure my dad's stage four colon cancer with coffee enemas, not realizing that my dad was already dying. It was disrespectful, and finally, my brother let him know. He got offended and did not show up at the funeral. He had no active relationship with my dad or us, which resulted in him being way out of line and his circle.

Ring Theory Explanation

You may not know where each person in these circles belongs, but you should know to who the people are directly connected. The primary purpose is to know what circle you are in so that you don't cause more stress and grief to the person(s) in the center. It is also not to say that someone from an outer circle cannot make their way into a closer one or vice versa. People come together when hard things happen, but sometimes they grow apart.

Each circle represents the direction support should go. The direction of venting or dumping feelings needs to go outward and away from the center person(s). The person in the center can share with people in each circle; the people they feel most comfortable with. People around them can share their feelings, reactions, questions, and frustrations with people in the larger circles, but not the smaller ones. Our words should be supportive to the center circle while abstaining from overburdening them. Comfort always goes in, "I will make you a meal and drop it at the door, is that ok?" "I hate that you're going through this." "I will rearrange my schedule to make it to the funeral."

1. Draw a small circle. This center circle is where you put the name of the person (or family) grieving, in crisis and going through something traumatic. You can also do this for yourself if you are the center person to clarify where you feel people fit in your own life.

2. Draw a larger circle around the first one. In that circle, put the name of the person(s) that are closest.

3. Next circle, put the next closest people. Example: close family, intimate friends.

4. Final circle could be acquaintances, colleagues, neighbours, etc.

Just because someone in your inner circle does not mean they will know how to support you; people don't magically turn into therapists. That is why I am such a big proponent of gaining grief literacy and general relational competency skills to prevent a stressful time from worsening by those unable to relate generatively. This is one of the most heartbreaking aspects of grief and loss. People panic, act unkindly or flee when they cannot understand their reactions to complicated things, creating even more stress for the person in the center.

One more time, understanding, listening, providing tangible support with permission, and giving grace go inward, always flows towards the center. Complaining to the center person(s), being negative, demanding, giving unsolicited advice, venting, making excuses, expressing shock, rambling about your issues, and becoming judgmental is best communicated to people in the same circle, a friend or a therapist. To give more context, the person or people in the center who are directly affected may not have much capacity outside of caring for their needs, families, etc. The people in the other circles can also express their feelings and valid concerns. It's not that you aren't allowed to grieve or feel or have a life and your problems. Kind boundaries are good. However, venting and openly sharing whatever is on your mind with someone already dealing with so much could be straining, leaving both people feeling unheard and creating more stress. It doesn't mean your feelings don't matter. It means that going to someone else, for now, will be more beneficial and will keep your relationship intact with the person who can't be the person you are used to them being. THIS TAKES TIME.

Relationships shift as life keeps spinning, and so our circles change. Taking care of yourself when supporting someone else is imperative, be honest about your capacity, and have that conversation. Being transparent with each other can prevent heartbreak. Especially if the person you are supporting is in an ongoing crisis, like a chronic illness, continual mental health concern or going through a heart-shattering loss or losses that will take more time than you think. That is how people grow tired and resentful. They become drained and feel like the relationship is not worth the work. Inner circle people and those who love them must take good care of themselves. They must have an outlet and take breaks when needed.

Example of Circles and Disappointment:

An acquaintance was going through a hard time, and I was surprised to be included in an email more geared toward being in her inner circle requesting help. She put me in a much closer circle than I would have considered myself, and I was already at capacity with a health-related crisis in my family. Eventually, she expressed her disappointment that I did not support her in the way she needed and explained that she saw me as a good friend/inner circle person, and I had to be very honest that it was not what I could give her.

Communicating and ensuring you are on the same page and understand how relationships need tending. People deserve clarity. We're all entitled to our feelings to situations, but picking our moments matters. Ring theory became a tool for me to reflect on the relational issues I had as I grieved my friend and dad. It was unclear who belonged in what circle. It also helped me understand my role and that the level of support depends on the circle I am in with others. I was also shocked and, at times, appalled by how insensitive some people could be. It is also why I sought therapy right away to ensure I was not leaning too much on my people and to start showing up for them as much as possible once I got out of survival mode. There is nuance in all of this, but I believe Susan is asking us to be mindful about what we say and who we say it to in times of heightened sensitivity and crisis.

There are many more examples if you search Susan Silk Ring Theory.

How not to say the wrong thing

Psychologist's 'Ring Theory' can help you not say the wrong thing to people in grief

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