Moving from sympathy to empathy… 

Posted on April 20, 2023 by Rev. Pam Reidy under grief, loss, mourning
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Most of us are quick to offer sympathy when we learn someone has experienced a death loss. Indeed, in the early hours of a loss, sympathetic acts expressing concern, kindness, and compassion can be a lifeline for the bereaved. Planning for and engaging in rituals such as visitation with the family, funeral services, and mercy meals, offer limitless opportunities to be of help. Acts of sympathy are proportional to the circumstances of the death and one’s relationship to the survivor. I once received a sympathy thank you note from a family that perfectly expresses the range of possible sympathetic kindnesses:

Perhaps you sent a lovely card or sat quietly in a chair.

Perhaps you sent a flower piece, if so, we saw it there.

Perhaps you said the kindest words that any friend could say.

Perhaps you were not there at all, just thought of us that day.

Whatever you did to console our hearts,

We thank you so much ‐ Whatever the part.

As the grief journey advances, disengaging from the immediacy of loss, the needs of the bereaved move from the need for sympathy to the want of empathy. So many people who have experienced the loss of a significant other or a child, have expressed in some way the idea that, “yes people care, but they just don’t really understand.”  Sympathy is caring, empathy is understanding.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is in the capacity to truly feel what someone else feels. This could be a role for someone “who has been there,” but preferably someone who has gained something valuable from having been there. Empathy does not necessarily develop simply because we have faced the same experience as someone else, such as in the death of a child. Some individuals have an innate ability to move beyond sympathy to empathize even when they have not experienced a like or similar event, among these are very skilled and caring professionals. When I worked in a nursing home, I witnessed a young doctor consistently offer genuine empathy to her elderly patients. Her perceptive heart and sharp mind didn’t need years of living to understand and feel their struggles. Likewise, I witnessed elder peer caregivers who were sympathetic to old folks, but lack empathy, which required seeing the situation from the point of view of those they were caregiving.

When one is grieving deeply, it helps to have an empathetic companion. Empathy doesn’t offer unasked for advice; it does not pass judgement. Empathy views not from its own perspective, but rather from the mind and heart of the bereft.  Empathy suppresses its own emotions, needs or beliefs. Sympathy may cause you to feel bad for someone, but empathy requires honoring their feelings from their perspective. Above all, an empathic friend or soulmate holds a loss with us, making it less weighty.

Empathy frees us to be where we are without fear, without expectation. There are times on the grief journey when we must simply stop for a respite and the empathetic companion honors the pace, helping us to avoid moving too quickly or slowly. In short, one who empathizes is in for the long haul. Sympathy may provide a quick fix, empathy does not. Empathy helps open doors the bereaved may have shut and possibly locked because going through them seems too painful. Empathy returns the broken to their own hearts to find home again.

Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer is my favorite poet of all things grief. In this poem she brings us into the milieu of empathetic grieving.

As You Have Done for Me

If you were here
I would put my hand
on your heart
and hold it there
until our breaths
became a single tide,
hold it there until
I could feel the moment
when you remember
your infinite value.
It’s so easy to forget
we are treasure.
So easy to lose track
of our own immeasurable worth.
The chest rusts shut.
We think we are empty.
Amazing how easily
we are fooled into believing
we’re paupers.
Sometimes it takes another
to remind us
we have always been
not only the treasure
but also the key.
Though the hinges
are a metaphor,
the treasure is not.
We were made to open,
to share our priceless gift,
to press our hands
to each other’s hearts
until we all remember.

by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

There is a time for sympathy and a time for empathy, and every grieving person needs both. There are those whose sympathetic kindness is just enough and there are empathizers whose grasp of us helps us heal. One is not to be favored over the other. At times we are the ones to offer compassion and kindness through sympathy, other times we are the very person from whom empathy must come. Knowing the difference and moving from one to the other is a certain grace…

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