Monday, September 7, 2015

Empathy > Sympathy > Pity



Everyone knows the feeling. You hear of a terrible tragedy in which a child (or children) has died and you cringe inside. You watch the story on the news, you share the article on Facebook, you talk about at it work. It evokes feelings of sorrow, disbelief, and confusion. It also evokes a feeling that no one would ever want to admit… relief. Relief that that horrible story isn’t your story. Relief that your family is safely tucked in bed and away from harm. Sadly, this is a natural human response. You look for your best interest above all else. You stop watching the news, you stop reading the paper, and you begin to shield yourself as much as possible because it is just “too difficult” to see. You choose comfort over compassion. Sure, it is terrible that bad things happen, but not all that terrible as long as it isn’t happening to you.
You begin to pity others, but you don’t sympathize with them. This type of thinking/acting is devastating. Pity creates distance, and implies that you are above their pain. The more you distance yourself from tragedy, the more you alienate the people who need compassion the most. You feel sorry for them, but glad for you. When you think of their situation, you feel better about your own. Their pain reveals your joy. This is NOT okay and your thankfulness should not stem from tragedy of others.

From someone who has been there, I’m asking you to please forget pity. If someone you care about has lost their precious child, choose sympathy. Sympathy is not a natural response. It takes a conscious effort. Please make that effort. Allow yourself to imagine the pain, to feel what you can. It may be difficult, but remember, it’s not even close to the reality of the pain that they feel, and will continue to feel every day. You may want to relate but please don’t compare any other situation to the loss of a child. Your friend knows that you don’t understand (and they would never want you to), and a trite comparison only does harm. You don’t have to fully understand their pain to understand the magnitude of their pain. And more importantly, they don’t need your understanding, they need your love.

And then there is empathy. If you can empathize, please do. If you have lost a child (or a grandchild), please share that with your friend. Not in the sense of “I got through this, you can too”. But in the sense of “I have known this heartache and I am so sorry that you now know it too.” Acknowledge that though you have had a similar experience, you know that no one feels that pain the exact same way. The bond between parent and child is like none other and is completely unique to each person. Through your empathy they will feel less alone. Your empathy will encourage them to keep going when they want to give up. And they will see that there can be life after loss.


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Alex Hopper is a writer in North Carolina. She is married to her beloved, Trent, and mommy to her angel, Cyrus. Cyrus was diagnosis with a fatal birth defect in the womb at 12 weeks. He was carried with love until he was born at 33 weeks on November 25, 2013. He lived for 1 hour and 9 minutes. His life was short, but his legacy lives on.

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