How Not to Say the Wrong Thing

“An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t… Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.”

C.S. Lewis

Admittedly, before our loss, I was like the awkward bystander on the street that Lewis describes here, embarrassed and wondering –

Do I mention it? Do I not? If I do, what can I possibly say?

What if I say something wrong?”

Now, however, Patrick and I are finally returning to the realm of people after weeks of our own leprous isolation, hiding away in our grief at home. And now standing on the other side of the street after the death of our twin boys, we dread these moments of impending embarrassment.

So, as a little help, I wanted to share with you some tips that we have found tremendously helpful along the way.

The first tip has been a godsend for me. When I first encountered this advice, it felt like one of those life-changing, “Aha!” moments that Oprah always preaches about. I have been evangelizing about its wonders ever since.

The beauty of this bit of advice is that it is not limited merely to the potential embarrassment of sticking your foot in your mouth when you are speaking with someone who is grieving. It can work for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even spiritual. This little gem is called –

 Comfort IN, Dump OUT

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman first shared this life-transforming tidbit in the Los Angeles Times after experiencing countless “lame remarks” from well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided people when Susan had been diagnosed with breast cancer. You can read more of their advice here – “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” – Los Angeles Times

The rule goes like this.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person most impacted by the current trauma. At this moment after our stillbirth, that’s Patrick and me. Now, they say, draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring, put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. For us, that would be our immediate family members – our parents and siblings. Repeat the process as many times as necessary. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Close friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done, it should look something like the picture below.


Here are the rules, as Silk and Goldman explain them –

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.

No one’s feelings are invalidated. Anyone in these circles can be impacted by this pain. Our chaplain, for example, may have left the hospital that day more devastated than we could understand after encountering Ezra and Leo and bearing witness to their death, even though she didn’t know us, even though she was not personally affected by our loss. However, our chaplain would fall on an outer ring. And therefore, it would have been inappropriate of her to dump any of that pain she may have been feeling onto our family or onto us. Thankfully, she knew this and she didn’t.

Our families are hurting. Our friends are hurting. Our church is hurting. Strangers who have never, and may never, meet us in person have shed tears as they read about Ezra and Leo’s death over the vast chasm of the World Wide Web. No pain is invalid. No grief is discounted.

But – and this is a big BUT – not all pain is best shared with every person in every moment. And this is where this tidbit is so ingeniously helpful. To avoid potential awkward moments and to promote healthy boundaries, I cannot recommend this enough.

Saying the Right Thing

There are countless recommendations floating around about how to say the “right thing.”  Truthfully, most of the time saying the “right thing” simply means saying nothing at all. A listening ear, a warm shoulder to cry on, an admission that you don’t know what to say – all of these are a far cry better than even the best pithy platitude that you could muster.

Still, though, some great recommendations for what you can say to suffering people can be found in this video of Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook whose husband – another tech giant named Dave Goldberg – died unexpectedly. Take two minutes to watch it if you can. Her advice is invaluable.

As Patrick and I return from the isolation of grief to the land of the living, I hope that this helps.

We will be gracious, and we will understand if we see you struggling with awkward embarrassment when we run into you on the street. Or in church. Or on the World Wide Web. We will be forgiving, knowing that we too have too often said the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. We will recognize that all that you say and do in the days ahead will be coming out of a place of well-intentioned love. And admittedly, there may be times when there is no “right thing” to say to us because we just may not be in the right place to hear it. As C.S. Lewis expressed, we may hate it if you mention it, and we may hate it if you don’t. I am sorry in advance.

Still, though, I hope that these tidbits make it just a little easier for us all.


3 thoughts on “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing

  1. When in deep grief, the inner world is like a nuclear wasteland, where, existing without familiar emotional touchstones, no comfort can be found. In this nightmare of unparalleled loss those who bear this suffering do not need your advice, your opinions or your assumptions. They need to know that you are ready to hear them. Yes – ask them how they feel today and… wait for the answer. You may be deeply moved by what they say, and you may well feel privileged that they said it – to you. And they did so because you gave them a chance – and there are few like you.


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