Empathy Over Sympathy - Building Honest Connections During Grief
People often think they need to show sympathy to someone who is grieving. Research shows us that it is empathy, instead, that fosters true connections.
Alisha Joy, April 14th, 2020
What is empathy and why is it very different than sympathy?
We often think of the ability to show sympathy as a positive trait; however, according to Dr. Brené Brown, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.”
While Funeral Directors often have a natural inclination towards empathy, it is something that may be a new concept to many community members. The extended family and friends of the families you serve likely want to be supportive, but may not always understand the best way to do so.
Brene Brown made a short video years ago that simply and clearly explains the subtle differences between sympathy and empathy, and guides individuals on how to display true empathy to those around them. You may wish to share this video with your client families, and encourage them to share it out with those they would like to lean on for support as they grieve. Once someone can understand the basic tenets of empathy, they can show up more openly and fully for those they love.
To show empathy, it’s important that we remove ourselves emotionally and become impartial observers, noting, “You seem sad.” instead of asking “Why are you so upset?” or “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Sympathy is “I see you, and I feel bad for you.”
Empathy is “I see you, and I feel this with you.”
Empathy requires that we make ourselves vulnerable to another person’s pain, and that takes courage. To connect with someone’s suffering, we must pull that emotion from deep within ourselves, and feel it fully. It seems counterintuitive because most of us do not want to feel our own pain, let alone connect with it on purpose.
Difficult conversations are rarely comfortable. It seems easier and more helpful to try to alleviate a person’s suffering by pointing out that their glass is half full. However, people who are in emotional pain are not looking for an answer; they are looking for connection.
Dr. Brown explains that starting any sentence with, “At least…” is a faux pax. For example:
“I lost my job.”
Instead of: “At least you got severance pay.”
Try: “That sounds stressful. Would you like to talk about it?”
“My boyfriend broke up with me.”
Instead of: “At least you didn’t waste any more time with him.”
Try: “Is that upsetting or are you feeling relieved?”
“My grandmother passed.”
Instead of: “At least she lived a long life.”
Try: “That’s so sad. I’d love to hear more about her if you’d like to share.”
Dr. Brown wisely notes, “What makes something better is connection.” And, it is connection expressed through empathy that will make our world a safer and more loving place.
When a family comes to you with their grief, they are rarely looking for a solution, as they likely know there is no quick fix. Instead, they are looking to you for compassion, for a non-judgemental presence, and for a calm assurance that their feelings are valid.