From sympathy to empathy

Jane Hyde, Feb. 1, 1919 - June 15, 2011

My mom died Wednesday.  Thankfully, both her caregiver, Gabriela, and I were with her, so I won’t have to spend the rest of my life imagining her dying alone, wondering whether she was at peace, or whether she felt pain.

While my mother was in the hospital, later when she was receiving hospice care, and after her death I received many notes of sympathy.  Reading these reminded me of how much I struggle to write a satisfactory sympathy message when someone I care about loses a loved one.  Apparently I’m not alone.  The first link that came up when I did a Google search for “sympathy notes,” best card messages, said,  “Sympathy card messages can be the most difficult card messages to write.  The blank spot in the card can intimidate you and make it even more difficult to think of what to write.”

The creator of these opening lines is right.  I can produce 400 words on nearly any topic, as regular readers of this blog can attest, but I freeze when I have a pen in my hand, and the white spaces on the sympathy card resting below me are looking up daring me to fill them.  Usually anxious to be done with the task, I scribble off something hurriedly and close the envelope.  My messages are usually limited to: “I’m so sorry for your loss.”  Shameless lack of originality.  I’m so sorry for what you are going through.” A little better.  At least it acknowledges the existence of an emotion. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself during this difficult time.” Good advice, but often hard to follow.

Fortunately, I have friends who are more skillful at expressing their sentiments in writing than I.   Here are a few of my favorites:

There is just a feeling of helplessness that we can’t get past as we try to do the right thing and bring comfort to those who are dearest to us.  Donna

Were all the aged and declining parents to have a “child” like you it would be a wonderful place.  Sharon

I know this was a blessing amid the sorrow – just as it was with my Dad after his stroke.  Karen

As you work through this, try to focus on the happy times and wonderful memories of things you shared.  Jan S.

With the death of your mother, I hope that you can experience both the relief and assurance that you’ve cared for her well.  Sylvia

There are more examples than this to choose from. What characterizes all of them? A sense of genuineness, a personal connection, and the acknowledgement that while each of us experiences loss in different ways, people in my generation know what it feels like to lose a parent and are able to move quickly from sympathy to empathy — a good lesson for the future.

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About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness.
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2 Responses to From sympathy to empathy

  1. Jill Turnell says:

    You have not yet received a card from me because I have been struggling just as you said, to find the words – no matter what we say, it feels inadequate. I’ve already thrown away one card, and will try again. The examples you listed show that some people are able to find the words and do it well.

  2. If I know the person who died, I try to think of a small anecdote or remembrance and include it in the card. I’ve heard back that those brief remembrances are very appreciated. Otherwise, I’m also at a loss for words. However, having been the recipient, I know that the thought is much more important than the actual words.

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