How to help someone who’s grieving: the difference between empathy and sympathy

I thought I knew how to be supportive. Then I lost my dad and mom and learned how NOT to be helpful from all the people around me that were trying, in earnest, to help. I learned that most frequently (if not always) it’s best to be still and quiet and just listen.

I didn’t know how to put into words the subtle difference between ‘trying to help’ and ‘actually being helpful’ until I saw this video, the key is the difference between sympathy (trying) and empathy (helping).

Voice: Dr Brené Brown from the talk The Power of Vulnerability.
Animation: Katy Davis (AKA Gobblynne)

So many times people (trying to help) would say things like “I know how you feel, when I lost my [sister, friend, dog] I felt like I didn’t want to wake up in the morning” or “you need to focus on those wonderful things surrounding you, be grateful for your [supportive husband, beautiful daughters, health]”… I also had people telling me not to worry “you’ll eventually get over it”. And I won’t even get started with the “she’s better off in heaven” because I could write a whole post about that one.

Let’s start this new year with the resolve to be more empathetic, to listen more, to offer a kind touch, a quiet hug.

Cheers to a year full of love, happy 2014!



It is nice to know that there is a community of people reading my posts. It gives me immense relief to have a place to bring my thoughts and share things that have helped me wrap my head around the concept of loss. You are there, I am here, but there is no reason we can’t connect.  If you like what you are reading, please click “Like” below. If you want to chat, leave a comment. Thanks!