- When someone experiences a death of someone close to them, it can be difficult to know what to do or say.
- A new paper on sympathy differentiates this as an other-oriented emotion from empathy, which is self-oriented.
- Putting sympathy together with empathy can provide you with the most effective way to provide comfort.
If you have lost a close family member, friend, or romantic partner, you know how painful those early days, weeks, and maybe years can be. In the immediate aftermath, you may receive a variety of forms of condolences. Those who express sympathy may find themselves uncertain, however, of what is the best way to show their condolences in a way that will be truly comforting.
Deconstructing the Emotion of Sympathy
According to a new paper by the University of Geneva’s Elodie Malbois (2023), sympathy is “a feeling for another” (p. 86). Unlike the self-oriented emotion of empathy, which is a feeling “with” another, sympathy is an “other-” oriented emotion. Self-oriented emotions apply to the way you are feeling at the moment, not what is going on with someone else. A death may lead you to feel momentarily sad, just because it’s a sad situation. In the other-oriented emotion of sympathy, your own sadness is not a factor. Citing previous authors, Malbois goes on to note that sympathy is “elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of someone else.” Unlike schadenfreude, in which you feel joy or at least glee when someone else suffers a loss, sympathy is restricted to negative emotions.
Once the feeling of sympathy is aroused, the question becomes how you show it. One way is to provide help, such as comforting the person who’s experienced the loss and maybe even helping around the home or bringing over a lasagna. Many cultural traditions revolve around this form of concern for the “perceived welfare” of the bereaved, suggesting that at least some of the motivation for providing help is done in the context of normative expectations.
Sympathy vs. Empathy
It is one thing to understand sympathy as concern for another person’s welfare and quite another to figure out how best to communicate this emotion to them. Those concrete gestures of helping are certainly one way, but they don’t get to the heart of the emotional experience of the other person. Sure, they will appreciate your making a meal so that they have one less thing to worry about. However, what can you do to help ease their pain at this emotional level?
Thinking back on your own losses in your life, what did you find most comforting? People will often express condolences in a generic manner, such as “Sorry for your loss.” You may wonder about their sincerity, especially if the person is someone you don’t know well, such as the customer service representative helping you decide which flowers to order for the funeral. Even so, you could find this better than their not saying anything at all.
If someone close to you were to express condolences in this formal and somewhat distant manner, the effect on you might not be quite the same. You expect the people who know you well, and who maybe knew the departed, to show their sympathy in a way that is unique to your situation. The only proviso here is that if this standard message is accompanied by a hug, or even tears, you can take comfort in their gestures rather than their words per se.
Returning to the definition of sympathy as an other-oriented emotion, it may be possible to gain insight from this very idea into another feature of well-expressed condolences. Distancing your emotional experience from that of the bereaved means that whatever you say or do originates from “outside” of yourself. Instead, if you allow yourself to feel empathically that same emotion of loss, the comfort you offer will be that much more effective.
Malbois defines empathy as “feeling what another person is feeling,” and although you will never truly know what those emotions are, by trying to tap into their feelings, you will get a better sense of what they’re going through. Empathy alone, she notes, may not produce action, but it can be a precursor to sympathy by allowing you to gain knowledge about that other person’s inner feelings. In her words, “Empathy then plays an epistemic role rather than a motivating one” (p. 92).
Because the feelings that loss triggers can be so overwhelming, empathy runs the risk of leading you to try to run as far away from the bereaved as possible. However, from the bereaved person’s perspective, the fact that you’re willing to face that onslaught of negative emotions can perhaps provide solace.
Communicating Your Sympathy Most Effectively
Heartfelt expressions of concern for the person suffering a loss, then, combine empathy and sympathy. What remains less clear is the route that you should follow to get to empathy. As the U. Geneva author suggests, in empathy, you are always trying to understand someone else’s perspective from your own vantage point. As the bereaved, you might not actually feel the emotion that the person comforting you assumes is there. The onus is on the comforter to try to gain that shared perspective, and the best way to gain that perspective is for them to listen.
Sympathy can also exist as a feeling for the other people who share a loss. Family members, friends, and partners each had their own distinct relationships with the deceased. In this mutual grieving process, each individual is not only struggling with the loss but also trying to provide comfort to each other. The stronger the bonds among the bereaved, the stronger the empathic understanding.
As the Malbois paper makes clear, sympathy and its corollary, empathy, are emotions based on social bonds. When you think about losing someone close to you, it can be comforting in and of itself to know that others will be there to support you. Even if they stumble a bit in their expression of sympathy, the more their words are based on an attempt to understand how you’re feeling, the less you'll care about the exact words they use.
The final question that may remain is whether you express your sympathy in writing or in person. Distance can prevent people from offering solace in a face-to-face manner. However, whether in a card, text, or letter, the mere fact that someone is taking the time to do so may be all that counts. As you put those thoughts and feeling into writing, don't worry about being poetic; just be sincere. Even more important is to respect the wishes of the bereaved by forgoing the flowers and donating to charity, if that's what they requested.
To sum up, loss is a part of life, and so is expressing condolences to those who are going through the process. As you do so, incorporating both the “self” and “other” emotions will provide the greatest comfort.
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Malbois, E. (2023). What is sympathy? Understanding the structure of other-oriented emotions. Emotion Review, 15(1), 85–95. Doi:10.1177/17540739221140404