I need your empathy, not your sympathy

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A forest and patch of grass basked in sunlight

Hannah, who has previously written for Let’s Talk About Loss, wrote to me in response to my article explaining to others how to help me through my grief, and has written a similar piece asking her friends to empathise not sympathise.

*Disclaimer: Talking with someone who has lost a parent can be really tricky – we completely understand that. This website exists primarily to allow those who have lost someone they love to share their experience and talk through the taboos that exist in society. If it can also help educate those who are friends to grieving young people, that is a fantastic outcome. We know how hard it is to know what to say, and hope that you find an article like this helpful. As ever, email hello@letstalkaboutloss.org if you have any thoughts or questions.*

This post does not come from a place of anger and annoyance, more from a place of grief and love.

One of my pet hates is when someone looks at me with that classic look of sympathy after finding out my mum has died. Yes, I can understand why people do this, but sympathy is not going to get me anywhere. I do not feel sorry for myself, so you do not need to either. I had a mum who was present and wonderful for 17 years of my life so that is something to be happy about, not to be sorry about. However my grieving of her death is going to be a long and painful journey so I do need your empathy.

Understanding my loss

What’s the difference between sympathy and empathy then? By definition sympathy is the feeling of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, while the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Doesn’t the definition of empathy just sound so much more positive and encouraging? Sympathy encourages people to feel sorry for themselves and stay where they are, while empathy helps people to move forward and continue living their life.

Some of you may look at the definition of empathy and think “but I don’t know or understand what it’s like to lose a mum, let alone at 17 years old”. You don’t need to. In this life we have all experienced some sort of loss, whether this be a grandparent, partner or even a loss of confidence. Even if the person is still alive you may have experienced a loss such as an end to a friendship but the communication has been cut off and this can feel like a loss.

You understand more than you realise

In reality, what does empathy look like compared to sympathy? To me, this is what I think it looks like:

  • Instead of crying for me because of my situation, cry with me as I remember the memories and experience my grief.
  • Instead of talking to others about my sad situation, ask me how I’m actually doing.
  • Instead of avoiding me because you don’t know what to say, and therefore don’t want to hurt your pride by saying something wrong, just say anything.
  • Instead of just thinking about me on those known hard days e.g. birthdays or Mothers day, tell me you’re thinking of me.
  • Instead of getting annoyed at me on a bad day, forgive me and remember that this is tough for me and I’m going to make mistakes.
  • Instead of expressing sadness at my situation, ask me what my mum was like, I love that!
  • And if you want to ask a question then do! That’s the only way we are ever going to get over this taboo of grief.

Most importantly make sure no one walks through their grief alone, in any situation. Obviously there will be times when they have to do this grief thing on their own but you can be there to check in to see how they really are. Even when they say they don’t need you, they do. As humans we hate to be seen as needy but isn’t that what all friendships/ relationships are about. You help someone with their difficultly and they help you with yours while enjoying the joys of life.

So from today let’s choose empathy over sympathy. We all need empathy, not sympathy.

Hannah is a fantastic young woman and once again she has articulated well her feelings as she navigates life without her mum. If you want to learn more about Hannah’s situation, you can read her earlier post here.

Another fantastic article: a friend recently shared this article, published on The Huffington Post, with me. It’s another great article explaining how people in the Western world have got grief all wrong and have unrealistic expectations about how people cope with grief. It’s important to fully understand that everyone deals with grief in a completely unique way but there are some common realities. I really recommend this article and hope that is might help shed more light on the experience of loss and death.

If you have a story to share with us, email blog@letstalkaboutloss.org.