I was in college, becoming a teacher, I learned about a method to help kids with social disabilities understand levels of familiarity. An image of colorful
concentric circles teaches a child how to regulate social interactions. The closer
a person is to you in the center circle, the more intimately you can share and
interact with them. Certain behaviors are not appropriate beyond a certain
A dear friend recently helped me to repurpose that visual in the face of tremendous grief, fear, and physical discomfort. (While I’m not afraid to talk about the status of my colon, I do recognize that the number of people who care how things are going down there is not unlimited.) The main thrust of this philosophy was this: Shit Out; Love In.
In the first circle is my mom. She fills the role that I imagine would otherwise be filled by a spouse. For better or worse, there is no spouse, so she has stepped in. She’s practically in the bull’s eye with me because I’ve come to learn that watching your child go through cancer is actually worse than having it in your own body.
I can count on one hand the folks in my second circle. They are the people who, with my mom, bear the brunt of my care-taking and emotional support. My best friend and my brother absorb the majority of my freaking out about life (and death). My pastor emerita accompanies me to most appointments and is the reason that my sometimes-shaky faith is not altogether broken.
A cohort of fellow moms, teachers and lifelong friends populate the next level, followed closely by my church people and some seriously great community members and sports moms. They’re all beyond the best. Seriously, guys, you think you have great friends, but they can’t possibly be as next-level as mine.
The position of the circles tells us where to direct the good stuff versus the bad stuff. As difficult as my disease is for many people in my world, their fear and sadness should never, ever be directed toward the center. We can’t even right now.
So please, don’t burden my brother with how broken you feel about the fact that I might die. He’s busy buoying his sister while freaking out a little bit himself. And don’t go crying to my bff Nikki about how scary cancer is when she’s been up half the night with me sobbing on her shoulder.
Instead, send them all of your love. Then turn around—outward—and tell someone in your own second or third circle about how devastated you are. We are pebbles tossed into a pond, our ripples spreading, overlapping, and impacting each other.
In fact, I was honored recently to be someone else’s outer circle when she was reeling from the diagnosis of a close friend. In all that we say when it comes to grave situations, we simply need to be mindful of the direction that our shit is flowing. Don’t push it to the middle—we’re in it up to our elbows in here.