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Are you more Empathetic or Compassionate?
In my previous post, I briefly described how I felt during the first months of my complex grief. Something I came to realize is that Carl and I are fortunate to be surrounded by people who have been very understanding and patient with our grieving process. Maybe this is because we lost a child and another one was severely injured? Regardless, we are incredibly grateful.
As I write this post, I came to realize that I have a lot to share about today’s subject. This topic is part of many conversations in bereavement support groups. It is something you do not necessarily learn in school, but in my opinion, one should learn more about it. They are said to be a skill and a behavior that are key ingredients of emotional intelligence. I am referring to empathy and compassion.
Empathy and compassion are topics that are important to me. Quite often, it is people who have experienced difficulties who better understand their importance. Admittedly, talking with other bereaved has helped me learn more about these two components of emotional intelligence. Throughout the last year, I was also able to learn a lot from exceptional people who continue to demonstrate great empathy and compassion.
What to Say to a Bereaved Person?
Lately, I was able to participate in online support groups, either through messaging groups or video chat groups. I was also able to interact with other bereaved by private messages.
Upon sharing with them, what I take away the most is that not only do they suffer through their grief, but they feel often misunderstood by others. In particular, one of the comments that frequently comes up relates to the words and actions of others. The bereaved are upset by hurtful comments, such as: “Move on”, “At least you…” or “You should…”. Not only such comments are not helpful, but they also indicate a close lack of empathy for the bereaved.
Being blunt with a bereaved person or trying to tell them what to do are two behaviours that usually do more harm than good. Telling a bereaved person to move on or think about something else will in no way diminish the fact that their person is gone or lessen their grief.
Grief and Depression
Everyone has their own way of coping with grief, and on their own timeline. Some people experience the pain intensely much faster, while for others, the pain comes on much later.
Many factors influence the reactions of the bereaved. The bereaved’s relationship with the person who has died will usually be the most important factor in the extent of the grief, and perhaps depression.
For example, let us compare two mothers: Janie and Pauline both just lost their babies at 20 weeks gestation. At first glance, one would think they are “similar cases”. However, it is incorrect to compare them since there are always underlying circumstances. In this case, Janie became pregnant after 5 years of trying, while Pauline got pregnant immediately. For this reason, Janie will probably go through much more intense grief than Pauline’s. Certainly, after all these years of trying, Janie had developed an extremely strong bond with her baby.
Moreover, other elements are often kept private so people often do not know the whole story. As such, it is wrong to assume that someone who shows symptoms of depression is “weak”. Depression is not a sign of weakness and it is important to be supportive and understanding toward someone who is depressed.
Most of the time, two people will react differently to a great loss. The police officer responsible for our case told my husband Carl that child loss can be exceedingly difficult for a couple’s relationship. Not only that it is painful for the parents, but they also must: live their own grief, support the grief of their spouse, and also possibly support the grief of their surviving children. In our case, the officer warned us: Fathers usually grieve differently from mothers, which often creates a gap between the two of them.
People grieving differently occurs in every type of loss, not only child loss. It is indeed rare for two bereaved to react similarly, even if they have experienced the same loss. Unfortunately, this sometimes creates tension between them since they do not understand each other well.
On that subject, I want to share the story of Célia, who I met through an online group:
Célia lost her mother Rose. Since Rose is in her 90s, those close to Celia were not surprised to learn of Rose’s passing. On the other hand, for Célia, her death was unexpected as Rose was healthy. Coping would have been less stressful if she would have had time to anticipate her mother’s death.
Célia was already having a difficult year. She went through a divorce and her children left her home. Following the death of her mother, Célia is, therefore, more depressed. Celia’s mourning is much more intense than her sister Vicky’s, who also has just lost her mother. However, in her case, Vicky lives with her husband and children, so she is better surrounded.
Celia feels a lack of support from her sister. Her sister is supported by her husband, but Celia has no one left. This becomes unbearable for Celia, who was already overloaded with other issues. In addition, Celia finds that her friends are not there enough for her, even if she needs their support.
It would be ignorant to think that Celia should not be grieving because her mother was elderly. It is even sadder to know that her friends and her sister are not supporting her. Celia feels the need to confide but she is afraid of being judged if she talks about it.
Unfortunately, bereavement is still a taboo subject. People are often uncomfortable “hearing” their loved ones grieving.
Celia suffers more than Vicky because she was simply more attached to her mother, not because she is less “strong” than her sister. Above all, sadness stems from the love (and attachment) one still has for the deceased. Celia needs empathy from her loved ones, but she is not getting enough of it.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to try to understand someone’s feelings, not just feel bad for them. There are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. It is sometimes called perspective-taking.
Emotional empathy is when you feel physically along with the other person. It is the ability to share the feelings of another person. This type of empathy helps you build emotional connections with others.
Some people who are better at demonstrating cognitive empathy can have a difficult time tapping into emotional empathy. With cognitive empathy, a person will simply understand that the other person is feeling pain without feeling it themselves. With emotional empathy, the person will literally feel the other person’s emotions. The two types of empathy come from different regions of the brain.
“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.”
— Barack Obama
What are the Differences between Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion?
What is Sympathy?
Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone whereas empathy is as feeling with someone. Some common ways to express sympathy are sending a sympathy card or flowers to the funeral service.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and to put their needs before your own. Compassion takes sympathy and empathy a step further. Someone compassionate will first recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), or feel their pain (i.e., empathy), then they will do their best to alleviate the person’s suffering.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” Someone who is compassionate, will:
- not run away from suffering
- not feel overwhelmed by suffering
- not pretend the suffering does not exist
Instead, someone compassionate will stay present with suffering. As such, showing compassion helps gain perspective because it puts the person in someone else’s shoes.
To summarize, cognitive empathy can be described as “understanding what others feel,” emotional empathy as “feeling what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”
Sympathy vs Empathy vs Compassion
Why are Empathy and Compassion so Important?
Empathy and compassion are needed in everyday life, especially when interacting with others. Without them, it would be difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
Oftentimes, those who are grieving receive more sympathy, than empathy and compassion. Empathy and compassion are both truly needed after a great loss.
It is easy to pretend that we would act differently if someone else’s situation would happen to us. Having empathy is not about trying to figure out all the details of why the person is sad, and why they are still sad after several months. The grieving process is complex and long. It is okay not to fully understand their reaction. This does not mean we should not be there for them.
Helping people usually requires emotional empathy. It is not only the bereaved who deserve empathy: a newly separated person, a sick person, a person with a sick family member, a person who is depressed, or alone and isolated, a person who has difficulties, etc.
Having empathy is not just about showing up once. It is not just about going to the funeral or sending a message of sympathy. This is sympathy, not empathy. For a divorcee, it is not just sending them a one-time message saying, “Sorry about your separation, let me know if you need anything.”
Certainly, a gesture (sympathy) is better than nothing, but to have empathy and compassion is to continue to show that you are caring for them. Empathy is listening instead of talking. “Big talkers, little doers” can have difficulty empathizing. You have to be present in their lives and support them so that they can get better.
Some people can show empathy and compassion. For some others, they will be empathetic but not necessarily compassionate. Others still will show their support by being compassionate even if they are not necessarily empathetic.
How to be a More Empathetic and Compassionate Person?
To have empathy is the ability to sense what is important to others and to be present for them, even for seemingly small things. The first step towards empathy is to put yourself in someone’s shoes without judging them.
To develop emotional empathy requires listening carefully to the person without trying to change the subject and to fully support them.
Having empathy and compassion means not assuming that this person is already well supported. Rather, it is to assume that this person is probably sad, even if it has been months, and that they still need support. It is better to assume the worst than the best when it comes to helping.
Showing empathy and compassion means continuing to send messages, being supportive of their approach, and encouraging them in their projects. It is also offering and being available to meet or visit.
Do not change the subject when the bereaved want to talk about their grief or the deceased. Rather, encourage them to share their feelings and talk about the person who is no longer there. Do not try to fix it; grief is not something that is broken, it is more part of love. Instead of thinking that we have to get out of mourning, we should accompany the mourning. Better to act than to say.
Before I finish, I would like to thank everyone who has been empathetic and compassionate to us over the past year! I have been amazed by how supportive people have been, and I hope you realize it. I should be thanking you more often!
My goal in writing this post was not to get people to be more empathetic and compassionate towards us specifically. Rather, I hope I have provided a different perspective that might help people be supportive of anyone around them who might be suffering in the future, no matter the situation.
Finally, I would like to share this interesting blog article that illustrates 7 examples of unempathetic people.
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*Their real names have not been used to protect their privacy