Holding Space & Making Casseroles

FBWJWith half of my professional life spent in parish ministry, I cross paths with people at their best and worst moments. The healthiest communities are those where people can safely share their burdens, and know that their load will be yoked to people who truly want to help. One of the trickier paths to navigate is when EVERYONE wants to help, and while being knee-deep in casseroles is pretty awesome, it can create some awkwardness if the one asking for help is not familiar with the throngs of people offering care.

This is an amazing problem to solve, and is an opportunity to remind one another that 55 casseroles just might be too many…but that there are many other ways to lean in for someone in need. I’ve found it best to sit down with whoever is in this new and  vulnerable position for an honest, confidential, and hopefully empowering conversation. It is crucial to reiterate that the person asking for care does not have to accept help from people they are uncomfortable with, they don’t have to eat food they don’t like, and they don’t have to apologize for anything. I recently walked a team through the process of setting up care for a recently diagnosed colleague and we used a model I have been privileged to use before, creating layers of care to meet the various needs while carefully guarding the privacy of the person in this bewildering season.

Wise friends taught me to ask the care receiver to come up with five people she would be comfortable having around her…the people she could text “help” to and know that they would drop everything.  These are the ones able carry the raw pain that comes with a terrifying diagnosis, creating the first circle of care outside of immediate family. After that, a second “ring” of care can be used up for dog walking, house cleaning, or meal preparation. This ring is filled with people who are typically selfless, generous caregivers who understand that they are meeting a crucial need, but are probably not in daily contact with the care receiver.

Unfortunately, diagnoses don’t typically arise when everything is neat and tidy. They tend to crop up during holidays, vacations, job crises, or family feuds. Fear and pain usually magnify what is already happening within the context of relationships, so perhaps setting aside all expectations is a first step for family and friends.  I often remind caregivers that the care receiver 1) doesn’t have to apologize for how the diagnosis makes others feel and 2) isn’t responsible for the emotional well-being of anyone other than themselves (and their immediate family.)  The need to provide care so quickly can also force some difficult and necessary reminders that “it’s not about you,” or rather…”it’s ONLY about the care receiver.”  And it’s perfectly okay if you cannot hold space this way for someone, no matter the reason, because another need will arise and you will be able to step up at that time. But it’s NOT okay to pour your own concerns, sadness, or even disagreements INTO the circle of care.

ringtheory1.jpgFive years ago, psychologist and breast cancer survivor, Susan Silk (along with her husband, Barry Goldman)  developed a simple technique that offered a simple, visual explanation to help everyone in and out of the “circle of care” understand and maintain healthy boundaries throughout the caregiving relationship.  It can be applied across all tragedies – medical, legal, financial, romantic, and even existential. She named it it “The Ring Theory,” and when the article ran it provided relief for thousands of people.

She tells people to draw a circle that will serve as the center ring and put the “care receiver’s” name inside. Next, draw a larger circle around the first one and write in the name of the person(s) closest to the trauma, and continue circling and naming as many times as you need to, which each larger ring representing the  next closest people. (Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.) What you end up with is what Susan calls the “Kvetching Order” where you apply the “rules” to the Ring Theory.

Rules, you ask? Yup. But remember…these are Susan’s rules, I didn’t make them up:

  1. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can cry 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.
  2. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in the outer, larger rings.

Basically, if you are talking to someone in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the only goal should be to help, and listening is more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to speak, try to remember to ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort or support…and If it isn’t, then just. don’t. say it.

People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support  such as “I’m sorry” or “This must really be horrible” or “Can I bring you a CASSEROLE!!!” and not “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And PLEASE don’t say, “This is really devastating ME.”

If you need to vent or cry, do it in the opposite direction. Turn away from the inner rings and pour it into any of the outer rings. This has famously become known as “Comfort IN, dump OUT.”

I hope you will never find yourself in the center ring, but I know few people who don’t spend at least some time in the eye of the storm. Comfort in, dump out.

God bless you all good.


One thought on “Holding Space & Making Casseroles

  1. Helen Martin

    Jenny this is a great post! I have been in the middle and in many rings. The other part of this is sometimes the rings get reareanged and the outer really end up being closer.


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