Need Comfort From Family After a Death? Follow This Rule

How to get support without burdening those closest to the tragedy.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

In the face of a loss, families may struggle not only to grieve individually but to make room for each other’s grief. (For principles on how to grieve well as a family, read more here.)

In a family hit with a crisis—a terminal illness, a death, or other significant loss—family members may feel overwhelmed not only with the gravity of the loss but also the responsibility to support each other in their pain. And while it is normal and healthy to turn to family members for support and comfort, often those individuals closest to the loss are put in the role of comforter to others. 

Imagine this scenario:

After a long fight with cancer, a woman buries her husband. At the funeral, the deceased’s colleague walks up to the surviving spouse and says, “I just can’t believe it. I loved him so much. This has been really hard. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this.” A second cousin follows, asking, “What am I supposed to do now? I’m devastated.” 

The colleague and cousin, in moments of immense pain and confusion, turned to the grieving widow for support. These sorts of moments can happen over and over by well-meaning family and friends trying to connect over a shared loss. Unfortunately, by seeking support from the spouse, they shift the spouse from the position of the comforted to the person responsible for providing comfort.

Who gets to lean on whom?

So where do we draw the line? Who gets to lean on whom for support when a family or community is hit with a crisis or loss? Psychologist Susan Silk and author Barry Goldman created a handy guide to help family members and friends quickly determine whose job it is to support whom in moments of loss and crisis. Using a simple chart, they determine each person’s responsibility to provide support to others based on how close or distant they are from the crisis:

Draw a circle. At the center of the circle, write the name of the person at the center of the loss (the ill party, the deceased, the person who survived a trauma). Now draw a circle around the first circle. In this immediate outer ring, list the person or people closest to the crisis, such as a spouse and children. Draw a larger ring around the first ring, and in it, list the next closest people to the crisis such as immediate family and very close friends. Continue to draw rings that radiate outward, getting larger and larger, encircling the person at the apex of the crisis. Fill in the names of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances based on how close or distant they are from the central figure. This creates an expanding axis of rings, radiating outward based on closeness to the person in crisis. 

There is one rule: comfort in, dump out. 

Silk explains it this way: “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. … 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.” Never vent to or lean on somebody closer to the crisis than you. 

According to this rule, a spouse never comforts an extended relative. A colleague leans on other colleagues, not immediate family. Outer circles send comfort and support inward while seeking help among contemporaries. By following this simple guideline, members of a community surrounding a crisis can maximize support while minimizing undue stress upon the most affected.