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Secondhand Suffering: The Grief We Often Overlook


Jul 11 2014
As the church rallies in times of tragedy, let’s also help the helpers.As the church rallies in times of tragedy, let’s not forget to help the helpers.

When a 19-year-old college student from our church went missing, our entire community sprang into action. Search parties were assembled, prayer teams were gathered, and social media campaigns were launched. Hundreds showed their support, and together we mourned when she was found dead some weeks later. The letters, prayers, condolences, and casseroles poured in. Her family's grief was massive, and we knew that their need for support would not be short-lived. Less obvious was the pain suffered by others who knew her closely and led the rescue efforts, like her Bible study leader and college campus director.

This happens so often when illness, accidents, or trauma strikes. Our focus on the immediate needs of the people most affected can lead us to overlook their close supporters, who bore their grief through the tragedy. Sometimes they themselves don't realize it until months later.

In their helpful article "How Not to Say the Wrong Thing," Barry Gold and Susan Silk suggest a way to discern what is appropriate to do or say in a traumatic event by situating the people involved in a series of concentric rings. The person suffering the most is in the middle, and those closest to them—spouse or parent, for instance—are in the rings immediately after. The further out the ring, the further the person is from the tragedy. These rings establish a Kvetching Order: those in the inner rings can complain about anything or say anything about the crisis—as long as they voice their remarks to someone in an outer ring. In other words, the person in the center can complain to anyone. But someone 3 rings out should not say, "It's so hard to see you like this," or "I don't know how I'm going to cope" to the person in the middle.

The corollary of Silk and Gold's thesis to "dump out" is that we should "comfort in" by offering our support to those in inner rings. Traditionally, we are good at focusing on the people in the center: we know they are hurting and so we organize meals, write cards, and make sure to include their names on prayer chains. However, we tend to overlook the people in the inner rings. They are the first-line receivers of pain being "dumped out," and yet when comfort comes in, it often bypasses them.

In her book Warrior in Pink, author Vivian Mabuni details her battle with breast cancer and describes the role her husband, Darrin, played during her treatment. He had cheered for her, sacrificed for her, even shaved his head with her. Towards the end of the book, Darrin shares his perspective: "Viv, you talk about how battling cancer was like a marathon run. Well, while you were running the marathon, I also ran right along with you on the outside of the race tape — only I carried a huge backpack. No one cheered me on. No one held up signs."

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Secondhand Suffering: The Grief We Often Overlook