What to Say when Trauma Hits

Comfort in HospitalIn the wake of two recent traumatic events in America—the Boston Marathon bombings and the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion—it seems appropriate to share some very helpful information I received several weeks ago from one of my former pastors, Rev. Dr. Scott Seidler.

Dr. Seidler, Senior Pastor at Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood, Missouri, wrote:

As a pastor, this may be the most concise advice EVER on what to say and not say when dealing with some who is hurting, grieving, dying, etc. READ THIS ARTICLE! Seriously, it will make my ministry ONE BILLION times more impactful (since the body of Christ will be behaving in a comforting and supportive way).

The article he forwarded was written April 7, 2013, by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman:

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?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat.

Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Put 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 Susan’s 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.

There was nothing wrong with Katie’s friend saying she was not prepared for how horrible Katie looked, or even that she didn’t think she could handle it. The mistake was that she said those things to Pat. She dumped IN.

Complaining to someone in a smaller ring than yours doesn’t do either of you any good. On the other hand, being supportive to her principal caregiver may be the best thing you can do for the patient.

Most of us know this. Almost nobody would complain to the patient about how rotten she looks. Almost no one would say that looking at her makes them think of the fragility of life and their own closeness to death. In other words, we know enough not to dump into the center ring.

Ring Theory merely expands that intuition and makes it more concrete: Don’t just avoid dumping into the center ring. Avoid dumping into any ring smaller than your own. Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.

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

Susan Silk is a clinical psychologist. Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of “The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators.”


As a Christian pastor, I would not recommend cursing the heavens. Furthermore, as Christian people, you and I know how important it is to share a word of hope and comfort with people in smaller rings, closer to the center than our own ring. In most cases, it’s entirely appropriate also to offer a brief prayer of assurance of God’s love, care, providence and protection.

Having said that, I hasten to add my counsel that we all give serious consideration to the practical advice in the story above. It would have been very helpful to many who were close to people affected by the two crises mentioned above. And it just makes good old common sense!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!

Boston Bombing—The New Reality?

Boston Bombing 1Another act of senseless violence occurred this week in what has become a litany of death and destruction in public places in America. At the finish line of Monday’s Boston Marathon, explosions took the lives of three people, including an eight-year old boy who was waiting for his father to finish the race. His six-year old sister and their mother were seriously injured.

In addition, over 175 people sustained severed limbs, shrapnel wounds and other severe injuries. At this writing, 17 are still in critical condition. Many victims were near exhaustion from just having completed the 26.2 mile run through the streets of that historic town. Please pray for the grieving families who lost loved ones, those who struggle for life and those who face lengthy recovery.

Obviously, attacks of violence are not new. They’ve been occurring for years, even in America. My brief review of recorded suicide bombs, car bombs, multiple bomb blasts, explosions, sniper attacks and other violent activities around the world produced an astonishing catalog of such manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man.

Wikipedia, a well known but not entirely dependable internet resource, provided a chronological listing of such activities that have occurred around the world since the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center towers. Between 2001 and 2007, more than 450 terrorist activities have occurred around the world. Here are the astonishing numbers from 2008-2012:

· 2008: 281
· 2009: 290
· 2010: 106
· 2011: 357
· 2012: 253

Total from 2008-2012: 1,287

The Heritage Foundation’s survey of terrorist incidents around the world between 1969 and 2009 indicates that 7.8% were directed against the U.S. My non-exhaustive research did not discover similar information from that source (or any other) for the past three years.
It’s clear that the overwhelming majority of these heinous activities took place in countries other than America. Among the leaders in this category (a nebulous distinction) are Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and a number of other Middle Eastern, European and African countries.

However, the question in my mind these days (and I know I’m not alone) is to what extent the freedom we enjoy in America has become super fertile ground for the proliferation of terrorist activities in the United States.

Are we living in a new reality that enemies of freedom and of Christianity will accelerate the frequency and severity of their dastardly deeds in the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Lord, have mercy!

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always!