Pour la version française, cliquez ici.
In my previous post, I briefly described how I felt during the first months of my complex grief. Today’s 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 key ingredients of emotional intelligence. I am referring to empathy and compassion.
Quite often, it is people who have experienced difficulties who better understand the importance of empathy and compassion. Admittedly, talking with other bereaved has helped me learn more about these two components of emotional intelligence.
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.
Example 1 – Perinatal Loss
Let us compare two mothers: Jamie 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, Jamie became pregnant after 5 years of trying, while Pauline got pregnant immediately. For this reason, Jamie will probably go through much more intense grief. After all these years of trying, she had developed an extremely strong attachment to the baby.
Why We Should Not Compare Grief and Losses
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 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.
Example 2 – Loss of an Elderly Parent
On that subject, I am sharing the story of Celia*, who I met through an online group:
Celia lost her mother Rose who was in her 90s. Her death was unexpected as Rose was healthy.
Celia was already having a difficult year. She went through a divorce and her children left her home. Celia’s grief is much more intense than her sister Vicky’s, who also has just the same person. However, in her case, Vicky lives with her husband and children, so she is better surrounded.
Celia feels a lack of support. Her sister can talk to her husband, but Celia has no one left. This becomes unbearable, who was already overloaded with other issues.
It is ignorant to think that Celia should not be grieving because her mother was elderly. It is even sadder to know that her loved ones are not supporting her. Celia feels the need to confide but she is afraid of being judged if she talks about it.
How to Better Support Someone who is Grieving
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 while caring for this person 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.
Sympathy vs Empathy vs Compassion
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.”
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.
How to Demonstrate Empathy
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.
Concrete Examples of Empathy and Compassion
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.
That’s it for now! Feel free to leave your comments.
Did you know that leaving a comment is an empathetic and compassionate gesture?
If you would like to receive my next post, you can click “Follow by email”. Or you can send me a message and I will send you an invitation!
*Their real names have not been used to protect their privacy