How to Filter What You Say for Others’ Comfort

The ones at the center of the ring of loss/grief/suffering can dump whatever they want into outer rings. Those outside the core may dump into larger rings, but ONLY COMFORT goes from an outer to an inner ring.

Ring Theory of Kvetching, Illustration by Wes Bausmith

When you’re upset over the death of someone dear to you and dear to others around you, it can be difficult to filter what you say to whom. A little over a week ago, a reader on another blog* shared this illustration of “Comfort IN, Dump OUT” as expressed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in the Los Angeles Times post “How not to say the wrong thing.”  (Please read the full article at

The concept is simple. The center of the “Ring of Kvetching” is the person to whom the bereavement, illness, crisis, or other distress belongs — the patient, the dying, the widow(er), the orphaned, the laid-off, the divorced, the ripped-off, etc. People affected in peripheral ways — immediate family, extended family, closest friends, other friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc.–are in the outer rings.

Quoting the post by Silk and Goldman:

“When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘This must really be hard for you’ or ‘Can I bring you a pot roast?’ Don’t say, ‘You should hear what happened to me’ or ‘Here’s what I would do if I were you.’ And don’t say, ‘This is really bringing me down.'”

If everyone applied such a “comfort IN, dump OUT” filter, it would be much easier to support one another through all kinds of grief, not just due to the death of a loved one but to other losses as well.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

It can be tough to see which ring is closer to the center than your own.

Within grieving families, though, it isn’t always easy to figure out — or remember — whose pain is at the center of the rings. Families are filled with primary relationships that could all be seen as the innermost rings:

  • spouse — spouse
  • parent — child
  • sibling — sibling

Also important are these other familial relationships:

  • grandparents — grandchildren
  • aunts/uncles — nieces/nephews
  • cousins
  • godparents
  • “like family” or “family by choice” friends

Loss is loss. If you’re in the inner rings, try to remember that those closest to you and your departed loved one are also hurting. Be gentle with each other’s feelings. Try to think before you speak, especially in response to comments that seem hurtful or insensitive to your own loss. If you’re not sure whether the person you’re about to unload on is in a broader, more “distant” ring than you, err on the side of caution, offering only your condolences and willingness to listen.


*Many thanks to Ana of the Nine+Kids for sharing the Los Angeles Times story and graphic in her comment on my guest blog post at The Sister, the Beast, and the Invitation to Love

8 thoughts on “How to Filter What You Say for Others’ Comfort

  1. I disagree, a bit. There’s nothing worse than having everyone, especially your closest family and friends only say “nice things” to you. If there’s a time of your life when you want lots of honesty and no patronising “It’ll be alright”, then a crisis is it. I’m not talking about being rude and confrontational, I’m talking about being yourself, and honest. Don’t think or worry too much about upsetting them, you’re their friend for a reason in the first place so it’s highly unlikely you’re going to say something wrong. If you start talking like someone different then that may be worse. My advice, be yourself and don’t read articles online about how you should behave (for some reason we think we need to be told this by academics), you’ll work it out fine by yourself… friends do that normally.


    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that honesty and authenticity is important, especially in times of crisis. But the point of this post (and blog) is to offer support to those who are grieving. They’re already upset. The “ring theory” acts as a reminder that the person in the center of the pain (for instance, a parent whose child has died) is the one who should be comforted by those farther out in the “rings” (such as the next door neighbor) and not the other way around.

      I had to smile at your advice to not “read articles online about” this, because much of what I write online(!) comes from friends asking me what did (and didn’t) help as I’ve worked through grieving. (Most friends do want to help, but not everyone has already experienced grieving in a personal way.)


  2. […] you are in the inner ring of mourning, it is not your place to voice your political or moral views on those who have been […]


  3. […] people outside the immediate, inner circle of loss may soon grow tired of the grief their friends express (whether in words, attitudes, or […]


  4. I couldn’t find a video on this very important theory to share when a friend’s child was ill, so I made one.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] note: These decisions belong to those closest to the deceased (those in the innermost rings of grief ). The role of everyone else is not to second-guess but to support. If you disagree with the way or […]


  6. […] reopened wounds of mourning earlier losses. These new losses forced me to focus on how to comfort those closest to the center of each loss while grieving […]


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