I do not project; I receive the other into myself, and I see and feel with the other. I become a duality. – Nel Noddings

When someone we love has experienced a loss, we may struggle to communicate our support effectively. Often, my undergraduate students as well as attendees at workshops approach me with their stories of grieving loved ones, culminating with statements such as, “I didn’t know what to say to help,” or “I had such a hard time finding the right words.” It is unsurprising that many of us might feel stumped sometimes in verbalizing our support to grieving loved ones, because we ourselves may not have received helpful communication during our own experiences of loss. We might lean on “sympathy scripts,” such as “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “thoughts and prayers,” while recognizing, with a feeling of discomfort, how little support these scripts may provide to grievers. 

I have long held the belief that communicating most effectively to grievers means shrugging off the norms of sympathy and turning, instead, to empathy. In weighing verbal practices of empathy against sympathy, I consider:

  1. Who holds the power within the conversation;
  2. Who benefits from the communication; and
  3. Helpful versus harmful strategies in demonstrating care

Empathy and Power

When we express sympathy to someone who is grieving, we – the non-grieving persons – hold power in the conversation. We are feeling sorry, or sad, for someone else. We control the conversation, including its duration, by reciting the scripts that we have learned. The griever has relatively little agency in conversations of sympathy, because they are similarly well-trained in social scripts. If we close a brief expression of sympathy with the common line, “let me know if there is anything that I can do to help,” we already know that it is unlikely that the griever will pick up the phone to ask us for help, precisely because the grieving person already recognizes the offer as part of a script. 

Conversely, when we extend expressions of empathy to someone who is grieving, it is the griever who holds power and control of the conversation. We resist using social scripts and instead speak honestly and from the heart, while keeping the griever – not ourselves – at the center of all communication. Instead of feeling for someone, we strive to feel with a loved one in their grief. As reflected in the opening quote by groundbreaking educator and philosopher Nel Noddings, in her writing on the ethics of care, we become a “duality,” maintaining our selfhood as a support but simultaneously seeing and feeling with someone who is suffering. Rather than being preoccupied with ourselves or how we believe that we would feel in the griever’s situation, we work to understand what they are feeling so we can best support them. Instead of imposing ourselves onto the other, we receive the other into ourselves.     

Benefits of Empathic Communication

I have argued in much of my work that the benefits of receiving empathy are far more meaningful and long-lasting than hearing only expressions of sympathy in times of suffering or grief. Whereas sympathy is often communicated quickly and via pre-packaged, culturally-prescribed sentences and phrases, empathy requires self-direction and originality in verbally demonstrating support. Grievers recognize the difference, which then signals to the griever that they can trust someone as a member of their support system and call upon them as a trusted listener in the future. During the period of shock, disorientation, or helplessness that may occur following a loss, grievers may also feel powerless. Receiving empathic communication restores to the griever some measure of power and agency, allowing them to be the center of conversations, not only about their deceased but also and importantly, about themselves.

Empathic communication also benefits those who are practicing it as a means of supporting grievers. Feeling with someone allows us to recognize differences between our own attitudes, values, and beliefs and those held by others without rushing to judgment, which in turn expands our emotional intelligence and better equips us to face losses in our own lives and be of future support to others. Moreover, empathy reinforces and strengthens interpersonal bonds in ways that have lasting effects long after the hardest weeks and months of grief have concluded. Developing empathic communication skills may be a lifelong and imperfect process for most of us. It requires more attention, patience, emotional labor, and open-mindedness than sympathy ever demands, but the effects of practicing empathy are invaluably beneficial, both to our loved ones and to ourselves.

Helpful Versus Harmful Strategies in Demonstrating Care

Often, I am asked for specific steps to follow in order to employ empathy in communications with grievers. These are tricky requests, because it is important that we not simply replace sympathy scripts with “empathy scripts.” However, when we consider which communication practices are most beneficial to grievers versus those that provide little help – or even do unintentional harm – we may begin to identify which strategies can help us in demonstrating empathy.

The following points of consideration are intended to serve as a starting place in self-evaluating our common practices in supporting grievers verbally. There is no “rulebook of empathy,” but each of these strategies is included because of its potential in restoring power to the griever and to benefit them through expressions of empathy.

Instead of ... coming into the conversation with a personal agenda
Consider ... keeping the direction of the conversation at the discretion of the griever

Instead of ... using many “I” statements, such as “I am so sorry,” “I was shocked to learn of his death,” “I couldn’t believe it”
Consider ... employing “you” statements and questions, such as “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” or “You were so important to her.” 

Instead of ... making assumptions about the loss and its impact on a survivor by saying “you must be feeling so…” or “normally, people feel…”
Consider ... asking specific questions about how the survivor is feeling and what this loss has meant to them

Instead of ... leading the griever toward your expectations about their emotions and choices in memorialization
Consider ... validating all communicated emotional responses as well as the griever’s choices in memorialization and bereavement to reinforce that there is no “normal” selection of choices that they “should” follow

Instead of ... imposing personal attitudes, values, or beliefs or assuming that you understand those held by the griever
Consider ... asking about and being receptive to the griever’s communicated attitudes, values, and beliefs surrounding the loss, which may be altered due to grief

Instead of ... providing unsolicited advice or trying to guide someone through their grief
Consider ... meeting the griever where they are in their own unique pathway of grief

Instead of ... identifying with the griever’s situation by sharing one of your own stories of loss
Consider ... keeping the griever’s loss at the center of the conversation in recognition that they have the right to own their unique story of loss

Instead of ... limiting the griever by saying, “I know how you feel”
Consider ... telling the griever that you would like to understand how they are feeling

Instead of ... shutting down the griever by saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”
Consider ... expressing that you want to understand what they are going through and ask open-ended questions about how they are coping

Instead of ... using disenfranchising terms and phrases developed around causes of death such as committed suicide, killed oneself, lost their battle, overdosed, or couldn’t overcome demons
Consider ... employing non-judgmental language such as “died of suicide” or "died of complications of addiction" and mirroring the language used by the griever

Instead of ... communicating “silver lining” or “at least” statements such as "at least they didn’t suffer" or "well, she lived a long life"
Consider ... articulating that you understand that no matter the circumstances of death, the griever is experiencing a profound loss and has the right to grieve

In my practice and experience, the most effective conversations that communicate empathy are those that occur one on one, in settings where I can:

  • Practice attuned listening without distractions
  • Listen more than I talk
  • Maintain centered and open body language
  • Keep eye contact
  • Allow for spaces of silence as needed by the griever
  • Ask questions about the relationship, the griever’s feelings and anxieties, and ways in which I can help

Ultimately, empathy is something we build as well as something we do. No one is perfect in attaining universal empathy; we work at it in order to apply it. Over time, continually developing empathy can expand our thinking about human differences as well as help immeasurably those in our lives who are struggling, suffering, or grieving. Developing empathy is an ongoing process, just as effectively communicating empathy is a process. As you reflect on the benefits and strategies of communicating empathy to those who are grieving, remember not to hold yourself to impossible standards because, like grief itself, practicing empathy is a unique process for each of us – and that we who strive to practice it are equally deserving of receiving empathy, too.