Empathy Vs. Sympathy: What's the Difference?

You can be empathetic, and you can be sympathetic, but which is appropriate for what situations?

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Liz Eddy

There are many ways to grieve, and that means there are many ways to support a friend or family member who is grieving as well. Oftentimes, we will fall back on our personal experiences or the memory of our own losses when we provide support and condolences to someone who has suffered a loss, but we may also rely on our innate sense of companionship and love to be there for friends when they need it. 

Here at Lantern, we believe that everyone deserves support and information on the end-of-life journey and what comes next. That’s why we have a wide library of guides and articles for navigating difficult conversations, finding the right healthcare option to fit your needs, and preparing your estate. When you register with Lantern, you’ll also find guidance for supporting friends and loved ones who are experiencing grief with tools like your own empathy and sympathy. 

What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy? 

Empathy and sympathy may sound very similar, but the truth is that they are very different approaches to understanding and supporting a person through an experience. When we better understand how to practice empathy and sympathy, we become more attuned to another person’s needs and how they might best be helped or supported during a period of grief—or even one of happiness. 

Here’s what you’ll want to keep in mind about the similarities and differences between empathy and sympathy.  

What is Sympathy? 

As people, we feel sympathy quite often. We can feel sympathy for people we never meet or for characters in television programs. Sympathy occurs when you care about another person’s pain or grief, and you want them to have relief from the experience. 

Sympathy is an important tool for survival and for supporting friends and family after loss, but it takes place at a bit of a distance from the other person. You understand that you are not actually having their experience, and for that reason, sympathy is often thought of as a more logical or rational response to seeing others grieving, even if the response is sadness for them. 

What is Empathy 

Empathy is quite the opposite. Rather than looking at a person or situation and saying, “I do not want them to suffer,” empathy allows us into the situation, where we experience the pain with them. When we practice empathy, we put ourselves into the position of the person who is struggling, and we see the experience through their eyes. 

Oftentimes, the ability to empathize with a person comes from a shared experience, like a similar loss, but not always. People who are naturally tuned in to human emotions and reactions can empathize, as well, to the extent where it feels as though there is a shared experience. If sympathy is more rooted in logic and the understanding that other individuals have feelings and experience loss, empathy is a first-hand insight into what that loss is actually like and how it makes you—or the other person—feel. 

How Can You Use Sympathy For Someone Who Is Grieving? 

Both empathy and sympathy are useful tools for supporting a person after loss or if they are grieving. It is important to take care when sharing sympathy since it has the potential to come across as patronizing or pitying, but there are benefits to employing sympathy to support others, as well. Here are some ways that you can use sympathy to be there for friends and family: 

You Can See When Someone Needs Help 

This is one of the most important things sympathy can do for us. It informs us when other people are struggling or suffering, so we can take action—even if it is an experience we have never had ourselves. You may feel sympathetic to people you have never met, but if you know a friend is grieving or struggling, you can use sympathy to understand when they need more help. 

You Can Stay Level-Headed

During grief, more emotions are not necessarily helpful to the person who is grieving, which is why sympathy can sometimes be more useful than empathy. Sympathy is a more rational, logical reaction to someone’s suffering, rather than emotional. That allows you to remain level-headed, so you can be a support system. This can also make it easier for you to consider the types of funeral plans or arrangements that need to be made or what estate responsibilities need to be managed, since you’re not navigating through the grief first-hand. 

You Can Protect Yourself If You Are Grieving 

Sympathy can be helpful for protecting your own emotions while helping someone who is grieving or navigating a loss. When the people around us feel strong emotions, it can impact our own emotions as well, and it can be especially difficult when we empathize, or take it all in ourselves, rather than sympathizing. 

By sympathizing, you are protecting yourself from becoming overwhelmed when supporting others. That helps to make you a more reliable and helpful support system that can more easily provide them the care and emotional guidance they might need. 

How Can You Use Empathy for Someone Who is Grieving? 

Empathy can be used to comfort someone who is grieving or hurt, because it allows us to look into their emotions and see what they need to navigate the complex difficulties of grief. Here are a few ways empathy is helpful for someone who is grieving. 

You Really Hear What They Have to Say 

People who practice empathy are experiencing an emotion up-close. That means they understand what a person is trying to say when they communicate their needs and feelings, often more than a person who is looking at it through a more logical lens. It can often be difficult for people who are grieving to find the right words to express themselves, and you can help them to communicate their needs and feelings with ease.

You Can Give the Right Advice 

Grief can often lead to confusion, frustration, or difficulty communicating needs. But a person who is practicing empathy can look at what a grieving person most needs and offer up advice to meet those needs. Even outside of specific instances of loss, empathetic people are known for giving good advice because of the way that they understand others. 

You Can Help Them Not Feel Alone 

If you are also experiencing the pain and grief associated with loss, you can help a person not feel so alone. Grief can feel very lonely and isolating. When another person understands the extent of your emotions, it can reduce those feelings of isolation. This can help you to support them through their other needs during grief, since they will feel more comfortable opening up and reaching out to their network. 

Empathy Feels Genuine 

We feel sympathy often and it is much easier to share and give, since it can be done with rational thought. Sympathy is incredibly important for creating relationships and supporting someone after loss, especially with a level-headed approach. That said, empathy is a way of creating a shared experience that feels more genuine and true. This can help with feelings of isolation and loneliness and the grieving journey overall. 

There Is No Judgment 

Because empathy is a shared experience, there is little room for judgement or commentary. While we may feel more emotionally vulnerable after loss, it may feel like others are passing judgement on the way a person grieves or for how long they do. With empathy, there is an understanding that each experience is unique to the individual and that this path for grieving is the right one for them and their needs at the time. It helps to remove just a little of the pressure and stress from grieving.  

In Summary 

There is no one right way to grieve, just as there is no one perfect way to support the people in your life who are grieving. But tools like empathy and sympathy can be very helpful. While empathy and sympathy are quite different, they both serve as ways to show love and provide emotional and logistical support to a person who has experienced a loss. 

Sympathy can be used to acknowledge and recognize a loss and to provide level-headed support in the form of action and understanding. It’s useful because it can be quite rational, which allows you to help your friend or family member without becoming overwhelmed yourself. 

Empathy is a chance to step into their shoes and see what they’re experiencing, often because you have had a similar experience yourself. It can reduce feelings of isolation and help you to truly understand what they need in the moment. 

Here at Lantern, you’ll find more tools for navigating grief and end of life planning. Explore our growing library for more information on how to help friends and family on their journey or how to take one of your own with more ease. 

Categories: Managing a Death, Grief, Supporting Someone Who's Grieving, Talking About Death

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