What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

What to do when a friend is grieving

We have all been there. We see someone who is clearly upset and sad. A close friend has lost a loved one or is going through a tough time. We feel that feeling, maybe it’s powerlessness, mixed with a bit of awkward. Whatever it is, we feel the need to do something about it. Sometimes, we will do or say anything to not experience that feeling. So, we avoid the person or avoid the emotion. Sometimes, we want to say something, anything, that will help our friend feel better. There is this sense of desperation. I can’t tolerate this pain, so I must say something. But what do you say to someone who is struggling?  What do you say to someone who is grieving? What do you say to someone who has lost a loved one?

What words do you say to a friend who is grieving? 

Before we answer that question, we need to dive into what message we want to deliver. Think about your experiences, when you have been the one grieving, what has helped or not helped you? The better you understand your experiences the better you can understand the experiences of others. Sometimes we just don’t have the words to describe what it is we are feeling or experiencing. If we get curious about our experiences and work to learn new ways to explain and understand, we become better for ourselves and for other people.

I assume you are reading this because you want to be that support or connection for a loved one, you just don’t know how or what. You feel that feeling?  That powerlessness of not knowing what to do or how to do it? Remember this feeling of powerlessness so that you can draw from this experience in talking with your loved one.

What do people need when they are grieving? 

I think, what most folks want when they experience grief is support and maybe a bit of connection. Just knowing that someone is there can speak volumes.  Now, it depends on the person and circumstance to understand what that support or connection looks like, but that is what helps a person move through the grief.

There are times when our aim is to offer support, but we miss. This miss can be when we offer sympathy instead of empathy. So, what is the difference between sympathy and empathy? Sympathy is when we feel sorry FOR someone. We say things like “oh you poor thing, I can’t believe that happened to you” or “bless your heart”.  Another example, “You must have felt so AWFUL, I would have JUST DIED”.  What we are inadvertently communicating is, that thing happened to you, and it did not happen to me. I pity you for the thing that happened.

Whether we are on the giving or receiving end of pity, there is a disconnection. The giver is putting distance between the person and the event, like they have some highly contagious disease that the giver might catch. The receiver can feel shame or guilt that this thing happened to them.

Here is an example of an empathy miss

I don’t know if this was anyone else’s experience, but here goes: Remember at the very beginning of COVID. If you had a positive test that was reported, you were contacted by these tracers? They asked you to go through the list of people and places you had been so that these people could be notified of their exposure. How did that feel? You, the COVID carrier, maybe felt a bit icky. Maybe it was shame that you are the sick one or guilt that Granny may get COVID because of you. Or maybe you were mad and a bit self-righteous. You felt judged by the contact tracer and anyone that you notified of your positive test results. Whichever emotion you experienced (and I am sure I missed a bunch), none of them made you feel closer or connected with the person you were sharing the information with. This is the same experience with sympathy. It puts distance between you and the person who needs your support. 

Please reach out if you would like to talk more or get the support that you need.

So, what does it look like when you offer empathy?

Empathy is like feeling sorry WITH someone. But not in the sense that you take on their emotion. When you want to support someone with empathy, you sit next to them and hear or acknowledge their experience. You recollect what it feels like to be powerless or helpless or in despair. Using that knowledge of your experience, you say something like “I hear you, this does suck” or “this is sad”. I saw a sympathy card and the only words on it were “Well, Shit”. That’s it. Sometimes that is all we can say. Please know that being there is enough. You might feel the need to highlight the silver lining “well at least she isn’t suffering anymore” or you might want to crack a joke (which might help, but know your audience). You might want to share about the time that you had a similar situation, just to have something to do or say. But you don’t need to. When we try to avoid, distract, or deflect from the experience of our loved one it is creating disconnection and adding to the intense emotions that they are already feeling.

An example of an offering empathy and not sympathy or judgment

Going back to the early pandemic example: Maybe you received a different message. Maybe when you called the parent to let them know their child was “exposed” because they spent time with your sick child, maybe the response was “damn, are you feeling okay?” or “I am running to the store, can I get you anything while I am out?”. I think that might have felt a bit better. Instead of putting a big scarlet letter on your house, you were met with the acknowledgment that there is an element of suffering here. This is empathy, the people you shared your test results with didn’t go get COVID to support you, they just acknowledged the reality of it without judgment.

I know that I am oversimplifying the pandemic. I do want to acknowledge that there are so many caveats to the experiences that our world endured and still endure regarding COVID. I know that it was and still is in some respects a very polarizing subject to bring up. My intention is not to start a debate or take a poll on all things COVID related. I am using this example as a relevant way to lean into emotion and understand the complexity of an experience.

So, now what?

When we have a better understanding of our experiences and we know better what and why we feel the way we do, we can offer this to others. We increase our capacity and range of emotions and in doing so we can have more meaningful connection to others. Because you took the time to read over one thousand words about empathy and sympathy you are now that much closer to knowing how to support the person you care about in their time of grieving. Empathy is not something that you either have or you don’t have. It is something that you learn and hone over time. You learn through empathy misses and experiencing and acknowledging what it is like to receive empathy and what it feels like to be pitied. Empathy also takes a bit of vulnerability. There is a willingness to sit with and acknowledge the powerlessness or hopelessness of an experience.  If you or someone you care about could use a guide through these experiences, please reach out or schedule a consult.