How to Help a Loved One with Loss

The difference between empathy and cognitive empathy.

Posted Mar 02, 2019

My son lost his cat last week. The tiny bit of relief I felt at the cat’s passing caused enormous gut-wrenching guilt. Meow Meow wreaked havoc on my household, yet his capacity for affection was extraordinary. The loss was profound for my 10-year-old son, Meow Meow’s best friend.  

As a child therapist, I knew the “empathic” words to say:

"You are so sad. I know. It hurts, buddy, I get it.”

“You loved him so much and you miss him. It is so hard. It hurts. I understand.” 

Yet, my empathy had a minimal impact on Kenny. He was teary, withdrawn, and angry for days. On the third day he asked, “Why haven’t you cried for Meow Meow, mom?” I rationalized and said, “I’m trying to be strong for you.” Later that week, it dawned on me that was not true. I wasn’t allowing much deep emotion in because I was desperately defending against the profound guilt I felt. I was too defended to feel anything deeply.

Exactly seven days after Meow Meow’s death, my son and I went to a movie. It was about a boy and a dragon. The relationship between the boy and the dragon was deep, profound, fun, empathic, and compelling. They found both safety and strength in each other. Their story was adorable. At the end of the movie, the boy had to say goodbye to the dragon. My heart broke and the tears flowed.  My son looked at me with mild annoyance and said, “Mom, it’s a movie. It is not real.”

The tears were uncontrollable as my heart ached at the lost love. Reflecting on the amount of emotion I felt for the boy and his dragon, I realized the empathy was actually for my son.

Two days after Meow Meow passed, Kenny described to me how much he loved that his cat was the first one to greet him after school. As Kenny laid on the floor and did homework or played video games, the cat rolled in front of him, waiting to be held, nuzzled, and cuddled. Kenny affectionately complied with all of his adorable and fuzzy requests.  

Day and night, the cat followed Kenny like a shadow and watched as he got ready for bed, waiting patiently for Kenny to wrap his arms around him and nuzzle his neck and say good night. In the morning, Meow Meow leapt onto Kenny’s bed and snuggled with Kenny until he crawled out from underneath the sheets. The bond between Kenny and his cat was hearty, loving, unique, and extraordinary. They provided each other with comfort and vitality.

As the tears streamed and the movie ended, I put my arm around Kenny and gently whispered to him, “You lost your dragon, baby. I am so very sorry. I will never forgive myself for not doing a better job protecting him.” The confusion on Kenny’s face disappeared, and tears welled up in his eyes as he buried his head in my arm. He hugged me tight. We left the movie theatre silently. He grabbed my hand as we walked out, and the tears continued to travel down my face.

When we got home, Kenny was different. He hugged me more, was engaged, and seemed happier and more at peace. That week I heard “I love you, mom” more than I had all month. Clearly, my sincere and deep understanding of his loss registered with him. For the first time since the loss of his best friend, he felt understood and not alone. The authentic and deep empathy healed him.

My initial empathic response lacked an emotional component. Intellectually, I knew what to say and how to convey empathy, but I did not allow myself to feel it because I was defending against intense guilt.

It is surprising that a psychotherapist, who empathizes for a living, would convey empathy that rings hollow. After all, deep empathy along with an understanding and interpretation of trauma, human development, attachment styles, and the complexities of human emotion is my bread and butter.  

Moreover, I have desperately tried to never lack empathy for my children, and I have witnessed the transformative and healing impact of my empathy on their existence since they’ve been alive. But I was busy and got lackadaisical.  I mistakenly assumed my empathy would do the trick as it always did, but the empathy was emotionally empty, often referred to as cognitive empathy.

The difference between cognitive empathy—intellectually understanding how someone may feel in a situation, and true empathy, which is actually “going there” emotionally, is totally different. One is just okay and the other HEALS.

Heartache, anxiety, loss, disappointment, loneliness, and emotional pain are experiences you don’t want your children, spouse, family members and friends to feel for a prolonged period of time, so HEAL them. You have the power. Go there emotionally. Feel it. Empathize. The greatest gift a human being has is the ability to heal. Cognitive empathy doesn’t cut it, but real empathy does. Love deeply and with all of your heart.