If you’re wondering how to better support someone during a crisis, or what to say when someone’s grieving, the Circle of Grief may help.

Learning what to say and what not to say to loved ones in times of grief and mourning can be challenging. It’s natural to feel anxious about possibly saying the “wrong” thing.

The Circle of Grief is one resource that may help you approach a crisis situation. It’s based on the Ring Theory, the brainchild of psychologist Susan Silk and her husband Barry Goldman, a legal arbitrator and mediator.

The theory provides a simple technique to offer support and protection to those who may need it most, while allowing for you to also have opportunities to express yourself and be supported.

This technique can help in any type of crisis — including a community facing a natural disaster, a medical emergency, or when someone’s mourning the death of a loved one.

In 2013, Silk and Goldman first wrote about Ring Theory for the Los Angeles Times, where they explained that the Circle of Grief starts by identifying the person who’s closest to or more affected by the crisis.

Encircled around them are five or more outer rings, listed here in order of closeness to the person at the center:

  • immediate family members such as a spouse or parents
  • close friends
  • other friends and family
  • colleagues
  • acquaintances or onlookers

The organization of the circles is based on the understanding that the stages of grief may involve intense and diverse emotions for all involved. In this sense, those closest to the center may require more comfort and uncensored opportunities to express how they feel.

Based on this, the Circle of Grief works by “comforting in, dumping out.” This means that support always goes to people in the inner circles, while expressions of worry, anger, or fear go to folks in the outer circles.

In other words, people in smaller circles are given the space to complain and vent out to those in larger rings. People in these larger circles offer support and solace to those in smaller circles.

The most vulnerable people, Silk explains, can sometimes be overlooked in crisis situations. It’s important to identify who needs support — and what type of support — in order to offer the comfort they need instead of adding to their possible overwhelm.

The Circle of Grief ultimately offers a framework for filtering out what to say and to whom. It seeks to reduce further emotional pain in what can be an already trying time.

Silk says the Ring Theory can help answer a question we should always ask before speaking: “How is this going to help the people who are closer to the center of the circle?”

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you want to avoid saying “the wrong thing:”

Practicing W.A.I.T. can help

Silk recommends using an acronym that’s often used in Alcoholics Anonymous: W.A.I.T., which stands for “Wait, Why Am I Talking?”

The acronym is used so the speaker can consider what purpose they hope to have with their words and to be mindful of their phrasing and timing.

Try to be receptive to feedback

Let’s say you’re grieving and someone says something that you feel may have added to your pain or worry. You still have the choice to speak up if you’d like to.

Silk says, “If you have the bandwidth at the time, and you’re willing to go there, you can say ‘This wasn’t helpful.’”

If someone you’re trying to support says this to you, consider being open to these words instead of defensive. It could be an opportunity for the grieving person to feel heard and for you to reconsider your approach.

Consider apologizing and forgiving

If in your attempt to support those people in the inner circles, you happen to say something that doesn’t help, there’s always an opportunity to repair.

“If I say something dumb, I don’t have to just cower and isolate. I can apologize. It’s not the end of the world. We all make mistakes,” Silk says.

Sometimes, supporting those in the center of the Circle may also be about skipping a few words or behaviors.

Consider who you share with

It’s natural to want to find ways to relate to what’s happening to other people. Something they’re going through may remind you of losses you’ve also experienced, for example.

In this case, it’s also natural to, at some point, feel the need to talk about your personal experience. However, doing this with people in the inner circles may not be what they need at the moment to feel supported.

Keeping the Circle of Grief in mind may help you find spaces to share how this situation makes you feel with people in the outer rings. That way you can avoid sharing with those in the inner circles, and instead, offer comfort to them.

“I still have to remind myself even when I’m not with clients but with friends who have dementia, cancer, [or other illnesses], to not ask questions that are going to be about me or aren’t helpful to them,” Silk says.

Instead, Silk says, you may want to consider offering practical support like bringing a warm beverage or running an errand for them.

Try to avoid avoidance

Intense emotions in you or others can sometimes be difficult to handle. It’s natural to try to avoid what makes us uncomfortable or upset. But when it comes to grief, try to not avoid the person mourning and consider reaching out instead.

Acknowledging someone’s loss rather than ignoring it for fear of saying the wrong thing might be challenging, but it helps.

If this seems difficult for you, try to keep the Circle of Grief in mind and seek social support from people on the outer edges of the circle.

Consider checking in periodically

It’s common for some people going through a crisis to receive a lot of support when they first lose a loved one or experience a traumatic event.

Consider checking in, continuing to lend an ear, and offering practical help even weeks, months, or years down the road.

Silk says, “Social support is the psychological equivalent of penicillin. It’s the basic DNA of recovery.”

The Circle of Grief, part of the Ring Theory, may offer you a way to support others while getting the support you need.

The Circle is about “supporting in, complaining out.” In other words, it’s about allowing those closest to the crisis to vent out and say what they need to say freely, while those further from the crisis offer support and solace.

While you support people closest to the grief, remember to also support yourself with self-care, therapy, support groups, and leaning on outer circles.