Factsheet 29: Empathy and sympathy

Empathy and sympathy - what is the difference?

Sympathy – explained simply, is a common way that we express our condolences to someone going through a difficult time. It usually sounds like this:

  • "I'm sorry for your loss."
  • "I'm sorry to hear about that."

Empathy is quite different to sympathy. There is no set expression of words for empathy. It requires more from us than just a statement of condolence.

Empathy always begins with good listening – I listen with the aim of understanding what this loss means to you and how you feel about it. I invite you tell me your story – I listen without judgement, without interruption and without telling you about a similar story of my own.

I do not listen with the aim of:

  • Fixing your grief
  • Cheering you up
  • Moving you on
  • Getting your mind off it
  • Snapping you out of it
  • Stopping you from crying
  • Showing you that others are worse off

When I respond with empathy, my words will show you that I have heard your message, I accept that's how you feel, I'm on your wave length and I hear what matters to you.

You will notice that I’m not put off by your tears, I’m not trying to tell you how to do your grieving. On the contrary, I give you permission to have your grief, I’m not frightened by your anger, fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness instead I try to understand it. And so I respond like this:

  • It sounds like you’re feeling really…
  • I can see how much that’s hurt you.
  • I can understand why you’re so upset. He/she meant the world to you.
  • You’re really lost without him/her. Life’s just not the same anymore for you.
  • You’re feeling so empty inside.
  • Your life’s been turned upside down.
  • Your head’s full of questions and nothing seems to make any sense.
  • You sound like you want to turn the clock back and say…
  • It’s hard to understand why the world keeps turning when your own life seems to have stopped.
  • Seems like you’re really struggling with this… the blame and the guilt…

Doris Zagdanski is a leading figure in modern day grief and loss education. Her seminars are included in vocational qualifications in Allied Health, Counselling and Funeral Directing.