The words sympathy and empathy are often thought to be the same, and yet they are distinct expressions.

In times of death, we often extend sympathy by sharing our sorrow for what’s happened. Sympathy cards are usually synonymous with condolence messages. When offering sympathy, we’re expressing concern for another’s feelings. Cards, notes, phone calls, e-mails, meals, and offers of assistance are all expressions of sympathy.

But you don’t offer empathy, you feel it. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s trying to imagine, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” And it’s the ability to act on those feelings. When being empathetic, we extend our concern by offering compassion so the bereaved feels validated; that someone has a sense of what has happened and how they might be feeling.

I think it’s easier to extend sympathy. We all know to attend the funeral, participate in mourning rites, send a card, make a donation, and keep in touch. Empathy is harder; it’s taking the time to think carefully while trying to understand how you might feel if this happened to you and what might bring you comfort.

Listening is a good example of empathy and we all know how difficult it is to simply pay close attention and listen, without adding our personal feelings or thoughts. It takes patience to hear the same story over and over again but it is an empathetic and meaningful thing to do.

When I think back to some of the comments that others have shared, it’s easy to discern the differences. One mother wrote that at her child’s funeral, she sat all by herself with her surviving child; everyone else sat behind. If someone had taken a seat next to her, that would have been empathetic. Another wrote that she had to make all the arrangements by herself for her father’s funeral and reception. Relatives weren’t happy with her choices and complained to her at a time of painful loss; empathetic folks would have helped and those that couldn’t would have accepted what she was capable of doing and extended comfort.

We’ll all experience loss – would you prefer someone extend you sympathy or empathy?


Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle StoreClick here to order.

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Comment by Gwen L. Tough on December 1, 2010 at 9:12am
Robbie, you say that "we all know how to attend the funeral." I would say, not so much, anymore. I find that more and more people are "uncomfortable" attending a funeral/memorial service and so find excuses to avoid it.
When my father and mother died in the early 90's, very few of my many friends attended their services. It hurt. I think they thought since they didn't know my parents, they didn't have to go. Their physical presence at my father/mother's funeral would have meant sooo much to me. A person who is grieving NEEDS the strength of others just to get through the day.

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