What Not to Say When There are No Words

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When people in our lives are struggling or suffering, we desperately want to help but often are at a loss for what to say or what to do.  In her deeply insightful book, “Option B,” Sheryl Sandberg describes that people going through a difficult time often find that they are no longer surrounded by people, but platitudes.

One of the most popular, not said out of malice or insensitivity, but rather in the absence of anything more thoughtful, is ‘If there is anything I can do, please let me know.’ She quotes Bruce Feiler who writes, “While well-meaning, this gesture unintentionally shifts the obligation to the aggrieved.  Instead of offering ‘anything,’ just do something.”

Sandberg suggests instead of asking, “Do you need a meal,” ask “What toppings do you like on your pizza” or “What do you not want on your burger.”  She writes, “Specific acts help because instead of trying to fix the problem, they address the damage caused by the problem.”

Our community’s own Rabbi Grajower echoes the same advice.  He writes, “Be specific and (reasonably) persistent. Instead of asking ‘Do you need me to do anything?’ go with, ‘I am in Costco, do you need anything from here?’ Instead of, ‘Can I be helpful with your kids?’ try something like, ‘Taking my kids to Chuck E. Cheese at 12, can I take your kids, too?’”

Sandberg quotes therapist Megan Devine who explains why doing something specific is important. “Some things in life cannot be fixed,” she writes, “They can only be carried.”

That phrase struck me because it is exactly the language our rabbis use when they describe a character trait we are to acquire as a prerequisite to receiving the Torah.  Pirkei Avos (6:6) tells us that one of the 48 ways that Torah is acquired is nosei b’ol im chaveiro, carry the burden with your friend.  When someone we know and love is struggling, our mandate is to lessen their burden, to carry it with them and ensure they don’t feel they bear it alone.

Dr. Brene Brown describes that true empathy rarely starts with the words, “at least.”  She writes, “Fixing your loved one’s problem is not often what is needed, nor is it necessarily your job or even within your ability to do so.  Sharing a listening, caring ear is something most people can do.”

Yet sadly, because of the inherent discomfort and the challenge to find the right words, rather than unburdening those struggling, many add to the burden by talking instead of listening and by describing how hard it is for them, rather than focus on the one for whom it is truly most difficult.

Susan Silk, a clinical psychologist, wrote an op-ed for the LA Times in which she shared her fantastic “Ring Theory” that address this phenomenon and provides helpful guidelines:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of [my] patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. 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 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. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort IN, dump OUT.

The Ring Theory is a brilliant prescription for how best to interact with someone going through a crisis. It captures something we intuitively know yet too often fail to practice. In fact, it probably should be posted on hospital room doors and on entrances to shiva homes.

However, for all of its brilliance, the Ring Theory takes something for granted that, unfortunately, is not a given at all. The theory provides guidance for those choosing to engage. But ask anyone who has gone through a crisis and he will tell you, the majority of people in his life didn’t comfort or dump, neither in nor out. They simply disappeared.

Yes, at the moment of crisis, family, friends and community often rise to the occasion. But what happens when the acute crises passes? How present are we in the lives of those we claim to care deeply about when the urgency subsides and the catastrophe dissipates?

As time goes on, without consciously intending to, many take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach, leaving the afflicted person feeling forgotten, neglected, insignificant and alone. What the “Ring Theory” doesn’t account for is that doing nothing and staying silent towards someone struggling with illness, loss, divorce or unemployment can be more painful than saying or doing the wrong thing.

Sadly, there are many in our community suffering from illness, loss and other sources of pain. Simply put – they rely on us, their friends and community, to care enough to enter the Ring. Perhaps we will be towards the center of the circle, or maybe we will be in one of the outside concentric rings. But the worst thing we could do is to disappear from the picture altogether.

Rabbi Grajower suggests, “One of the hardest facets of going through an illness or tragedy is the profound sense of loneliness that accompanies such tribulations… In my experience, the best way to help that person/family feel less isolated is to reach out frequently, with very short messages. Even now, a few people text me every Friday to wish me a good Shabbos. Some friends call or text randomly just to let me know they are thinking of me. These simple messages, which take only a few seconds to send, can be extremely touching and powerful in combatting the loneliness.”

Reach out, visit, send a text, spontaneously drop off flowers or a Challah, invite for a meal, or just let them know that you pray for them, think about them, and empathize with them. Find the important balance between showing up and providing them necessary space.

It is so hard to see people we care about in pain.  It is even more challenging when there is nothing we can do to relieve it, reverse it or make it go away. At those times, our responsibility is to be nosei b’ol im chaveiro, to grab on to the burden and do our small part to carry it.  Knowing we are davening from the depths of our hearts, doing tangible practical things and making sure to only comfort in can make it the smallest bit lighter for those that we love and care about.

This artcile originally appeared on rabbiefremgoldberg.com

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.