How Not to Say the Wrong Thing by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman is easily the most brilliant thing I’ve read all year. I will summarize it briefly but you owe it to yourself to go read the whole thing.
Basically, when someone is in a sucky situation – their dog died, they have cancer, they’ve been fired, they’ve been dumped romantically, whatever — those of us around them have our own reactions to whatever’s going on. But it is NOT the job of the person in the middle to take care of the rest of us about it. So, where should we go to process it? Draw concentric circles around the person with the crisis, with each ring radiating outward consisting of people farther away from that person in terms of closeness and intimacy. The rule is: Comfort inward (friends comfort spouse, spouse comforts cancer patient) and kvetch outward (patient gets to kvetch anywhere, spouse kvetches to friends, etc.)
Right now I can’t even think of a single situation in which this wouldn’t be appropriate.