Empathy vs. Sympathy

I never knew there was a difference between sympathy and empathy for a long time in my life.  I did know that after interactions with people around my grief either I left feeling cared for or angry.  I felt connected or more alone and sad.  There were so many situations where people thought they were trying to be helpful, to comfort me, but in truth it ended up causing me more pain.  False comfort made me believe that no one could be in my pain with me.  This is a horrible lie that makes the grieving process even more lonely and difficult. 

False comfort made me believe that no one could be in my pain with me.

Sympathy is feeling sad or having pity for someone.  That feeling in itself is not bad, but it is what you do with that feeling that matters.  With sympathy, we take that feeling of pity and try to fix things or make it better.  Sympathy is often more self-focused and less about what the person in pain needs.  Those that give sympathy often aren’t even aware of it. They may believe what they gave was enough.  This can leave the one grieving with all kinds of lies.  For me, I often heard the lie “you are too much.”  I felt that my pain was too heavy for others to handle, so I told myself to stop being honest and vulnerable in it.  I felt no one could be trusted.  With that I also heard the lie “be strong,” and when I couldn’t then “something was wrong with me.” 

Empathy is the commonly known as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is more than just a feeling. It is sharing in their pain. Even if you have never experienced the depth of their pain, it is trying to understand where they are at or what they need.  It may even be admitting you don’t understand, but you are there for them.  It is much easier to sympathize, because it requires little of us.  Empathy forces us to be vulnerable.  We have to make space for our own pain, deeply feel our own pain, so that we can enter into this space with others.  Our hearts have to break.  We have to work on our own emotional health to be fully present.  That is hard work! 

In my previous blog post, the family friend who left me alone to cry in my closet after my father’s death did not know my pain personally.  However, she could have crawled in the closet with me.  She could have cried and talked about the picture of my father.  She could have shared with me how she was going to miss him.  She could have sat with me in silence until I was ready to leave this hiding space.  It would not have taken away the pain, but I would have left understood and known.

I don’t share this out of bitterness or anger toward those who show sympathy.  I am guilty of it at times too!  It is a huge responsibility to walk with someone grieving.  Even with my own grief story, I still can get nervous when I am invited into this sacred space.  I want to be sensitive and say the right things.  I want to be aware of what that person needs, because everybody’s needs are different.  I want to make sure I am fully present and able to understand that person’s pain.  It is not an easy task to take on!  It will require a lot of you.

There are many reasons why we resort to sympathy, but I would like to touch on a few in my next posts that I have resorted to myself or watched other people respond to me while grieving.  This stuff is hard! I write about this, so that we all can be more aware.  Hopefully, we can bring true comfort and hope to others instead of more pain.

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