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

Introduction

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. 


More like This: How To Support Someone Who Is Grieving: During And After A Loss

1. Perspective Taking

The ability to take the view of another person and understand that their perspective is their reality.

The Four Attributes Of Empathy

Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, points out four key attributes of empathy:

2. Staying out of Judgment

Humans are naturally judgmental, but when we judge others, we make assumptions without knowing a person’s backstory.

3. Recognizing Emotions in Other People

Rather than reacting to other people’s emotions by becoming defensive or negating them, identify, validate, and clarify their feelings. 


More like This: What Does Grief Feel Like? 4 Comparisons To Explain Your Grief And Loss

2. Communicate

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.”

Being Empathetic

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.

Conclusion

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.

When you offer empathy to a grieving family, you are offering hope that they will be able to navigate this, no matter how long it may take.

You are reminding them that although losing someone is hard, they have the support and strength they need to make their way through.

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