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“Ring of Theory”

Ring of Theory

When a friend or family member is diagnosed with mesothelioma, knowing what to say to them is critical. Jennifer Gelsick, whose father is fighting the disease, offered some suggestions about saying the right thing like ensuring what you say “comes from the heart.” Now, a clinical psychologist offers the “Ring of Theory” as a guideline when communicating to mesothelioma patients and others who are facing a debilitating disease or other serious medical condition.

In an April Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, Susan Silk proposes using a series of concentric circles as a “simple technique” to help people avoid the mistake of saying the wrong thing. The theory being that the patient has the right to say anything he or she would like. As Silk explains, the patient “can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens.” But, anyone else talking to the patient or close family member needs to consider “if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support.”

Mesothelioma is a scary disease, and dealing with the treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, are challenging. During this time, patients and caregivers are under a lot of stress and the more help you can provide the better. Sometimes listening is better than saying the wrong thing.

To build the ring, write the patient’s name in the center of a piece of paper and draw a circle around it. Next, write the name of the person closest to the patient outside that circle, such as the spouse or child, and draw another circle. Continue adding names and circles until you have a “kvetching order,” as Silk calls it, with those closest to the patient in the smaller, inner rings, and friends and colleagues in the larger, outer rings.

Saying things like, “I don’t know if I can handle this,” to the spouse of someone who may have a terminal diagnosis, is not helpful, and is inappropriate, according to Silk. The spouse needs someone to offer comfort, and does not want to offer comfort to someone else. Although you may be upset, discuss your feelings with someone in the outer circles and farther removed from the trauma.

“Remember, you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours,” said Silk.

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Last Modified: February 1, 2019

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