Compassion, Not Empathy, Is Key to Quality Bereavement Care

How practicing compassion improves your ability to connect with parents

Posted Sep 27, 2019

The previous post explored the differences between empathy and compassion, and how practicing compassion benefits the caregivers who provide perinatal bereavement care, as well as the parents they work with.

This post goes into more detail about empathy versus compassion, and examines

  • how emotional empathy pushes us, as caregivers, into “protect and direct” mode,
  • how practicing compassion is what enables us, as caregivers, to “accept and connect,” and
  • what “accept and connect” mode looks like in practice.

What are the two types of empathy and how is compassion different?

The two types of empathy are cognitive and emotional.

·      Cognitive empathy lets us recognize suffering, take another’s perspective, and understand why people feel the way they do.

·      Emotional empathy lets us resonate with the pain we witness and experience that suffering for ourselves.

But neither type of empathy is sufficient on its own. With only cognitive empathy, we can remain detached and uncaring in the face of great suffering. With only emotional empathy, we can care deeply, but going deep can feel overwhelming and puts us at risk for burnout and secondary traumatic stress, which results in detachment as a form of self-preservation. With both types of empathy leading to detachment, neither one forms the basis for effective support of bereaved parents.

Compassion, on the other hand, is essentially a functional combination of both types of empathy. Daniel Goleman coined the term “empathic concern” and Paul Ekman called this “compassionate empathy.” Other researchers have identified this state as simply “compassion.”

How does empathy push us to protect and direct parents?

When providing perinatal bereavement care, if we practice cognitive empathy, we can see the parents’ suffering and we understand why, but we aren’t moved to assist or support. Instead, we maintain a cool, clinical detachment, and perhaps this is how we’ve been trained. Or maybe this is how we defend against burnout, fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress. But when we remain cool and detached, we aren’t able to warmly accept and connect.

Similarly, if we practice emotional empathy, it’s difficult to accept parents’ suffering because it triggers our own and we’re highly motivated to fix it. And when our top priority becomes “fix it,” we’re busy protecting and directing parents rather than connecting with them where they are.

Between the two types of empathy, emotional empathy may seem the better path. But when the parents’ pain becomes ours, the quality of our care is actually diminished in the following ways:

  • We cannot maintain healthy boundaries when we’re unclear about which thoughts and feelings belong to them and not us.
  • We judge their pain and their journey as “bad,” because that’s how it feels to us.
  • We cannot simply accept parents’ suffering when it feels so cruel and unacceptable to us.
  • We feel eager or even desperate to take over and “fix it.”
  • We can’t wholeheartedly have confidence, trust, and faith in parents and their journeys, as it’s too painful to watch them struggle.
  • We cannot calmly connect with parents and what they want when we feel emotionally overwhelmed by their experience and worried about their ability to cope.

Whereas cognitive empathy alone can discourage us from connecting with parents, and emotional empathy makes it difficult to accept parents as they are, practicing compassion is what enables us to skillfully and calmly accept and connect.

How does practicing compassion enable me to accept and connect with parents?

When you practice compassion, you can take another’s perspective and you care. But a key part of practicing compassion is that you become a curious, nonjudgmental witness to parents and their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Taking on this role enables you to see parents’ suffering as neither good nor bad, nor as a failure on your part, but as simply reflecting the reality of the present moment for them. You can accept their pain rather than trying to fix or erase it. You can connect without getting enmeshed or becoming emotionally overwhelmed. You aren’t thrown into the deep end with them. You don’t suffer. You don’t see their struggles as dangerous. You don’t feel desperate to protect and direct. And you’re not in a hurry. Instead, through compassion, you can accept parents right where they are, stay cleanly connected with them, and see their path, their struggles, and their pace as just right for them.

What does “accept and connect through compassion” look like in practice?

When you practice compassion, you are able to

  • maintain healthy boundaries, remaining clear that their suffering belongs to the parents, not you,
  • build rapport with parents and cultivate relationships that are therapeutic,
  • take the time to listen and be fully present as a nonjudgmental witness,
  • understand that it’s your job to simply accompany parents on their journey,
  • remain alongside parents without protecting or directing them as they struggle,
  • encourage parents to ask questions, express themselves, and explore options at their own pace, and
  • trust parents to find their way.

When you practice compassion, your mantra becomes this: 

I accept that parents are so emotional and distraught. 
I breathe in their suffering and I breathe out compassion. 
I trust bereaved parents and their process. I connect without judgment. I listen, and I follow their lead as they determine what’s best for themselves.

“Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” —Thich Nhat Hanh