My mother was a pastoral caregiver: the person everyone approached to talk, weep and rage through life’s crises. When she became sick, a problem emerged. People would come and pour out their strong feelings about her illness (not theirs); and she, in pain and exhausted, would quell her own feelings and comfort them as best as she was able – even as she desperately needed comforting herself.
Often, I became her proxy. I was a very young woman, and overwhelmed by terror, grief and rage as I watched my mother slowing dying. Yet people also came to me, not to offer a listening ear or an all-encompassing hug, but to seek comfort over my mother’s illness. I found it an impossible task: feeling enraged that this was being demanded of me, guilty and selfish when I wasn’t up to it, and unable to put my finger on why it all felt so difficult.
On Sunday we shared some sad news. One of our number is sick, someone who often supports and comforts us; and we don’t know what the future holds. It’s a time of fear and uncertainty, and so I want us to navigate this well. This article describes my experience to a T, and what I wish everyone knew; but in brief, it’s this: Draw a target. Put the name of the suffering person in the centre. Put their nearest and dearest in the ring around them. Put less intimate associates in the next ring, and keep doing this. You will find yourself in one of the rings.
Then follow one simple rule: Comfort in, dump out.
What this means is that if you find it difficult to cope with X’s situation, go and talk with or cry with or vent at someone on a ring further out than you. If you have the capacity to offer love, care, support and a listening ear, pour that capacity into anyone closer in the ring than you: not just the person in the centre, but their nearest and dearest, too. As for the person in the centre, they can weep, moan, rail at God, complain bitterly, go silent, or refuse visitors anytime; and they are not expected to comfort any of us.
One last note: Comfort and support mean listening and loving. They don’t mean giving advice or comparing situations. If you find yourself wanting to give advice or tell your own story inwards, bite your tongue. (And as someone who has in this email both told her own story and given advice, I can only say that I am writing it as a reminder to those of us on an outer ring, in the hope that it will be useful and in the expectation that we will all fail from time to time, and yet we will get up, brush ourselves off, and try again.)
So that’s it. The authors call it the Ring Theory of Kvetching, and you can use it whenever there is a crisis.
A reflection emailed to Sanctuary, 17 October 2018 © Alison Sampson, 2018.