Comfort in.... Dump out...
June 25, 2014 3:30 AM   Subscribe

How not to say the wrong thing... A simple rule for dealing with other people's difficult life events.
posted by HuronBob (48 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
This is kind of a variation on "it's really helpful to remember that there's pretty much always someone worse off than you, but it's never Helpful to tell someone else that there's someone worse off than them."

Also, while "I'm sorry" and "that's awful" seem like kind if weak responses to a serious problem, they are often what the affected people want to hear, so deploy them as often as necessary.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:09 AM on June 25, 2014 [17 favorites]

Soon to be adapted to online discussion management.
posted by pracowity at 4:13 AM on June 25, 2014

I use what I call the Costanza method. Whatever I think is the proper thing to say, I say the exact opposite because I am always wrong about everything. Failing that, I say I am sorry and then try to keep my mouth shut.
posted by Literaryhero at 4:29 AM on June 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

When I was going through a traumatic life event recently a person I love and who I know loves me said "But this is going to make people say X about me." The thing had nothing to do with them, they were just worried how it would reflect on them. It was very much unhelpful. You'd think dumping out was intuitive, but not so much. I like this.
posted by billiebee at 4:31 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

And don't worry. You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.

posted by indubitable at 4:36 AM on June 25, 2014 [22 favorites]

Seems pretty sensible - the difficulty in doing it is that you have to say more than two words at a time sometimes. Can you talk about similar experiences? Can you talk about details? Can you talk about your relationship with the person suffering to someone with a closer relationship? Should you just talk about something unrelated? Should you just avoid the inner circle so you don't offend them or feel intrusive? (This happens.)
posted by michaelh at 4:49 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I like to do magic. "I know you're going through a difficult life transition, but pick a card and put it back in the deck. Is this your card?"

Probably doesn't help that much, but hell... life is magic, right?
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:52 AM on June 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

the difficulty in doing it is that you have to say more than two words at a time sometimes

Silences do not have to be filled. In the very, very unlikely event that they expect you to talk then the golden rule is not to talk about yourself.
posted by epo at 5:12 AM on June 25, 2014 [26 favorites]

Seems like good advice, and it's true in other areas too.

"good" management, or military. You can complain up, never down.

Or good, cutting, biting humor. Punch up. never down.

If you do either wrong, you're being a dick.
posted by DigDoug at 5:17 AM on June 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

My dad, always the joker, and always obsessed with business, repeatedly told the story about the time his secretary came into his office and asked for time off so she could attend her mother's funeral.

My dad, focused on the business papers in front of him, fired from the hip, not thinking.

"If you think that's funny..." he said.

He has told that story so many times that I know he regrets it, in some profound way that recognizes that every enormous social gaffe contains a seed of truth.

Now that I think of it, I'm going to mention that story in his eulogy.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:32 AM on June 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think the greatest problem with this method is that a lot of the people likely to make the inappropriate comment probably also think they are in a smaller ring than they actually are!
posted by Wysawyg at 5:37 AM on June 25, 2014 [10 favorites]

If I'm in the center ring, I don't want to be surrounded by people who have been trained to only say all the right things.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:40 AM on June 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

Even simpler rule: don't say anything at all.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 5:44 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems a good rule of thumb, but I find that the folks who tend to make 'oh my god did they just say that' statements also tend to be too narcissistic to give such a rule any thought.

It's always about them.
posted by Mooski at 5:44 AM on June 25, 2014

(Dunno if this counts as a double but I referenced this article a while back and someone linked to it, in the green.)
posted by taff at 5:48 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am in the center ring. The fundamental message of this piece is that ANYONE outside the center should simply be respectful of the center ring person's circumstances, and not bring them up. If the center ring person wants to talk about his or her illness, he or she will be the first to mention it.

A personal example: I had lunch about 6 months ago with a friend from law school who I hadn't seen for almost a year (he and his wife live about 45 minutes away and had an infant about a year ago). From my perspective, he basically interrogated me about everything related to my terminal cancer, including my estimated life span, my daily activities and their limitations, my 4-year-old daughter's perspective (!), how my husband was doing, etc., etc.

I tried to change the subject over and over and he didn't stop. He isn't in any of my rings any longer, despite a subsequent apology email about a month later.

The ring perspective isn't that people should be trained to say the right things; it is that people should be respectful of the center ring and not bring up the illness and its impacts unless the center ring does first. Fundamentally, I am the decision-maker as to whether I want to talk about my cancer.
posted by miss tea at 5:52 AM on June 25, 2014 [19 favorites]

My wife was in intensive care for three months. We have two small children. She had a pregnancy-related stroke after our second child was born. That's about the time I started posting and commenting a lot on Metafilter.

She's doing much better now. She's legally blind, and she lost her job, but she's still a good mother. It's been almost six years now.

Metafilter helped me get through a very difficult time.

I was raised as a secular humorist. Really, my knee-jerk reaction to stress is to make a joke. Thank you all for putting up with that. Maybe I'm done with that now.

Be well.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:05 AM on June 25, 2014 [25 favorites]

Having spent time in the center ring, I'm totally okay with people having taken some time and advice to not be boneheaded to me or to make it All About Them. I barely had the oomph to deal with my own shit, let alone manage or react to someone else's.
posted by rtha at 6:07 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

That description of concentric rings, and not dumping towards the center, reminded me of the distinction between punching up and punching down that comes up in contentious discussions here and in discussions of comedy especially. It's a seemingly basic distinction ("don't complain about the cancer patient to her husband," say) that obviously many people struggle with.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:14 AM on June 25, 2014

Don't say, "You should hear what happened to me"...

This is really, really common, though. Telling people certain things will result in a >90% response rate of "here's what happened to me." Some of it may be inspired by wanting to help with advice, and some is about trying to express that they (believe they can) relate to your situation.

Some of the other stuff is just pure dumb, like, "This isn't just about you." But that one in particular is really common.
posted by cribcage at 6:15 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I support 100% any effort to make people behave better who are dicks. Even when the observed success rate is 0%, I still support the effort 100%.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:19 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks.

I had an acquaintance in college who was blindsided by a rare and aggressive form of cancer. During her recovery she recounted that someone had told her, "Wow, you look like an anorexic Holocaust victim." People, as wonderful as we can be, are sometimes more horrible than one can imagine.
posted by psoas at 6:24 AM on June 25, 2014

I think there's something missing here about innermost rings. It says the person at the centre can say anything, but that's not usually the experience of the person at the centre who knows that the people in the innermost rings are hurting and terrified, too and may not want to dump on them further. In reality I think the person at the centre will dump two or three rings out from themselves to spare the inner ring, so the people in that third or fourth ring need to be available for extra dumping.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:37 AM on June 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

Some really good advice and easy to follow. Unless you are socially inept like me...

When I was about ten, a family fried was climbing a fence and was impaled on a stake. Right up through the groin, and out the stomach. My parents told me we were going to visit and to draw him nice a card. For some reason, I started drawing a series of cartoons of him stuck on stakes - sitting the in the corner of a room with a lamp shade on etc. My parents were horrified. Luckily, he loved them - thought they were hilarious.
posted by greenhornet at 6:51 AM on June 25, 2014 [20 favorites]

Just say you're sorry and move on...
posted by Naberius at 7:03 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Coincidentally, my father lay dying but lucid in a hospital bed this weekend before passing away yesterday, and this idea of dumping out and comforting in was brought up several times.

As my father's friends came in to say their good-byes, I can compile from those visits a short list of things to say and talk about with someone on their death bed, in case you're struggling to come up with words of comfort for your own dying friends. (Please forgive the non-gender-neutral language.)

Tell him and his family he will be missed.

Relate to his family his good qualities you saw in him as his friend.

Better yet, illustrate these qualities with personal anecdotes.

It is okay if the stories tease or make light if the man in the center circle. (For example, I told the story of the time we shared a hotel room on a ski trip when, to escape his snoring, I slept in the bathtub.)

Talk about your good times with your friend to your friend. Remind him of the places you went together and the adventures you had.

Tell him recent interesting things you have done. Are you building a porch? Did you go on a trip? Tell him about it. Don't complain!

Tell him how your family is doing -- focus on the good things, especially on the accomplishments of your children. He watched them grow up and cares about them, too.

Tell him you love him.

If you do these things, you will help him and his family more fully realize the fullness of the life that's passing and that, I promise from experience, is comforting.
posted by touchstone033 at 7:11 AM on June 25, 2014 [88 favorites]

When my mom died, my husband told me that people's reactions are about them and their issues, their concerns about their mortality. Since then, I have tried not to hold it against people when they say insane things after something crazy. Like how my cousin complained after being a pallbearer at my mother's funeral that we didn't put his name in the program.

Narcissists are always in the center circle. When I saw my aunt after my mom died, she complained that it had taken a long time to get in touch with me - it was a Sunday morning and I kept my phone in a different room. We asked our aunt if she could answer the phone and take messages since a lot of people were calling. Once in a while, I would hear her saying on the phone, "Yes, I'm her sister. Well, there were four of us - my baby sister died several years ago so now it's just me and my other sister." It was kind of funny but also kind of sad that that's how she saw it - she was alone in the world but for my other aunt and my mom and now my other aunt was all she had left.

One of my favorite people during this time was one of my father's students who emailed him and said, I'm sorry to hear that your wife died but I can't get in to the system to check my test grades and it's really bumming me out so can you let me know what I have to do to get into the system?

Is it okay that I have oddly fond memories from this time?
posted by kat518 at 7:14 AM on June 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

posted by billiebee at 7:25 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

If anyone is interested, I wrote a short essay on fatherhood with him in mind shortly after he was admitted to the hospital....
posted by touchstone033 at 7:37 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love this article and have referenced it many times but it is true what others have noted - not everyone knows who is really in the centre ring.

When my husband was initially diagnosed with a variety of severe mental illnesses/personality disorders his parent's usurped his place in the centre and instead thought THEIR roles as the barely involved parents of an adult with psychosis was OF COURSE the most traumatic role. He got fired from work (with cause, he wasn't showing up and refused the help they offered him for years) and I called his mother to tell her. I had been warning everyone for at least two years that this was going to happen if he didn't get professional help but his parent's insisted he was fine which lead to him believing their opinions over everyone else in a folie a deux. Anyway, I called to say it had finally happened, and his mom laughed! When I said "no, he was really fired", she got serious and hung up on me. Both parents refused to reply to his emails and phone calls for the next week and a half. Later, his mom told me that she couldn't have any contact with him because it just reminded her how upset SHE was. Nothing about how he might be feeling, or how I might feel with a children and big bills, and a sudden loss of our family income. Both her and his dad had been fired multiple times for cause so you would have thought they could have related to how he felt and given him encouraging words...but nope, they played the shame and blame game (of course it was my fault he got fired and his mom said he would never be able to work again or see their side of the family and no one was to know he was no longer working to avoid embarrassing her).

When my husband emailed his parents one day two months later, right after I left for work, to tell them he was alone in the house with our children and he was going to kill himself immediately if they didn't bring him to a psychiatric hospital (note - he had been very explicit previously about his method of suicide but refused to seek medical attention despite my pleadings so this was no idle threat out of left field) they agreed to come get him from a short car ride away .... and then went shopping. At that point in our lives I was in pretty much constant contact with him because he was so actively suicidal, so as soon as I got to work and got one "off" message I returned him immediately. His parents showed up twelve hours later, having not contacted him, me, my family, his care team, the crisis line, or done pretty much anything else. His mom's excuse when she came to the door - "well, since you were making us come out on a Sunday morning I figured I deserved a little treat to boost my spirits. Your phone call was very upsetting to me, you know, I DID have plans to garden today." Yeah, same mom that ordered him not to take the anti-psychotics and other medications prescribed to him by his psychiatrist "because that is for people with schizophrenia and I know you are fine."

Even the mediation sessions we had with professionals so frustrated the professionals (one of the most experienced professionals years later said that one session had resulted in the lengthiest series of debriefing sessions for her in her thirty year career) that they couldn't handle another scheduled meeting and could find no professionals to refer us. Even his brother refused to see him during any of his multiple months-long hospitalisations at a hospital about five minutes away "because it would be upsetting to see my brother like that and I don't know what to say to you." That family still has no idea that the son/brother they see once or twice a year might actually be in the centre ring - or that his children might even be worthy of any kind of compassion.

Haha, I guess I needed to vent that! But you guys are my dumping out circle. : )
posted by saucysault at 7:44 AM on June 25, 2014 [30 favorites]

I will always say wildly inappropriate things. I accept the consequences that come with this character flaw. My friends mostly accept my rudeness.

EXAMPLE: I often start sympathy cards with "This is some fucking bullshit."
posted by ColdChef at 7:45 AM on June 25, 2014 [46 favorites]

touchstone 33: If anyone is interested, I wrote a short essay on fatherhood with him in mind shortly after he was admitted to the hospital….
In short, he let me play, and I made my own way with all my own mistakes and troubles.

Lovely! It's all I can hope to do for my own boys. (And I am sorry to hear about your dad. My own dad was in town this weekend from far away, and our hugs get tighter every visit. I wish you could have just one more of your own.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:50 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Metafilter: my dumping out circle
posted by mazola at 7:50 AM on June 25, 2014 [11 favorites]

The difficulty is that the people who most need to hear this think they are fine just the way they are.
posted by thelonius at 8:51 AM on June 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

It just stuns me that this rule has to be made explicit. Wow. But now I kind of understand the family friends who couldn't be with their terminally ill daughter as she died, because the wife "found it difficult to be around illness."

Kind of.
posted by tully_monster at 10:31 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nope, "this is some fucking bullshit" is pretty much always the right thing to say to me when things are going amazing and horribly wrong.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:34 AM on June 25, 2014 [14 favorites]

saucysault, that is some fucking bullshit.

So sorry you had to go through that.
posted by maggiemaggie at 3:07 PM on June 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yeah, I would also appreciate "this is some fucking bullshit" on a card myself. But you can't use that with most people, sigh.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:29 PM on June 25, 2014

After being hospitalized following a harrowing third miscarriage, I had visitors (many of whom had heallthy kids) who felt compelled to share and relive their own losses, which at the time was unbearable, a nightmare.

The cruelest comments invariably came from those insisting, "God doesn't give you any more than you can bear!" These are the same persons who told my terminally-ill friend of 27 that his cancer was "God's will." Such invididuals seem to believe they are being supportive and helpful and are somehow above the ring system. They are not.
posted by kinnakeet at 10:32 PM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of the most beautiful moments happen, I think, when people realize they're in the same ring together. That's when you can really commiserate, because both people get to be the listener and the complainer. You realize you're stuck in the shittiness together.

Sometimes when you're in the middle, protecting your layer-ones and layer-twos, all you want is for those people to dump inward on you so you can dump outward on them and stop pretending to be more ok than you are. Everyone gets all honest, and real, and finally you're not alone in your middle circle anymore. Things still suck, but there's an inner circle of people all together thinking, feeling, living the reality that "God DAMN this is hard."
posted by vytae at 11:41 PM on June 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

I had a dear friend who died several yeas ago from cancer. When she was first diagnosed and found that her condition was terminal, she told her mother about it. Her mother said, "How could you do this to me?"
posted by charlesminus at 11:08 AM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The cruelest comments invariably came from those insisting, "God doesn't give you any more than you can bear!"

My father died right before Christmas. A few days later on Christmas Day one of my aunts came by and claimed that my father was speaking through her and to relate how happy he was in heaven blah blah blah.

I left the room because it was that or burn the house down in rage and grief right then.

People think 'I'm so sorry' is inadequate, but it's infinitely better than most of the things people say instead.
posted by winna at 11:27 AM on June 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

I hope it's not entirely narcissistic to relate a personal experience if it's similar enough to what the people in the smallest circle (family members) are undergoing. A terminally ill relative in chronic pain, a beloved grandparent with Alzheimers, an elderly pet suffering from an end-of-life disease--for example. I want to communicate that I have at least some small idea what someone is going through, that I know they're in pain, and that I'm happy to listen. Perhaps it's all in the wording.
posted by tully_monster at 12:00 PM on June 26, 2014

Honestly, I think it's often entirely narcissistic. Because it's really not the same to have a small idea and to actually have been through it. It's often not just a matter of degree, it's an entirely different experience. If you want to communicate that you know they're in pain and you're happy to listen, the best way to do that is by saying "I'm sorry you're in pain - vent to me all you want. Or not! We can talk about fluffy things, too." Don't make them make you understand how little your experience relates to theirs. By all means, if they're the sole caretaker for their parent who has Alzheimer's and you were ALSO the sole caretaker for a parent with Alzheimer's? That's the perfect thing to relate.

I know it comes from a good place, but so often I find that it's not a comfort. And mostly people don't really know what you're going through, and it sounds like they're minimizing it. And the minimizing is so painful - even if it's not what the person is meaning. Just because it's well-intentioned doesn't mean that it's not a form of dumping in.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:43 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't be relating the elderly pet going through a terminal disease unless you were talking about another persons pet. If you weren't talking about a pet and were relating this to a dying human being I cared about, I'd fucking hate you beyond hell and mock you on Facebook for about....eternity.

So...yeah, no.
posted by taff at 7:21 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yikes, no! I meant those as specific examples of the kinds of experiences people might have in common! I wouldn't dream of relating something completely irrelevant as if the two were equivalent. But it should be acceptable to say, for example, "My mother cared for my grandfather when he had Alzheimers, and I know it could be exhausting for her," to someone who is the primary caregiver for a parent with dementia. Of course, one would have to take care to be brief, not hijack the conversation, and keep the focus on the other person's situation.

I mentioned the sick pet because a lot of pet owners do perceive that others don't consider their anxiety or grief to be as valid as it would be for a terminally ill human being. But under no circumstances would I treat those two situations as equivalent!
posted by tully_monster at 3:39 PM on June 29, 2014

Ah, so pleased to read that!! I had really hoped not, but friends of mine who have gone through terrible times with children with cancer and their own terminal diagnoses have certainly been subjected to the "I understand, my pet got sick and died too."
posted by taff at 10:43 PM on June 29, 2014

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