Years too few
Tears fall down unbidden
When will the sadness leave
Bodies tired from sorrow
Days too many
Definition of sympathy — “Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”
Definition of empathy — “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Until November 1995, I thought of empathy and sympathy as being synonymous words. Earlier that year, I had started a career in the cemetery/funeral industry.
Often I prided myself that I felt and expressed pity and sorrow for those who lost a loved one in death. Through the almost eight years in the industry, culminating my career as a funeral director, I realized that most of my colleagues showed sympathy.
Yet, many of those colleagues had an edge or bluntness to their mannerisms that did not evoke a good rapport with the families who came in to see us on what was probably the worst day of their lives. Very quickly after starting this career, I realized many things.
Three points, in particular, stand out.
1) Many who enter the business of caring for the deceased do so because they have learned that it can be a lucrative business.
2) It is impossible to understand and express empathy to others when you have never experienced what they have.
3) Not everyone handles grief the same way.
At a later date, I intend on writing on points one and three, but this post is about point number 2.
November 1995 changed my perspective. For the first time in my life, I experienced the loss of a loved one — a close loved one. In fact, the person that I lost was my brother, John. He was 4 ½ years younger than me, but we were best friends.
Before November 1995, I had no problem expressing sympathy for those I helped to bury a family member or a friend. This was true whether it was a funeral for a baby, a child, a teenager, or an adult of any age.
However, when the winter of death approached the door of our family, it was like a switch turned on inside of me.
I was able to not only sympathize, but I could empathize. In other words, I not only had feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune, but I also now had “the ability to understand AND SHARE the feelings of another.”
Do not misunderstand what I am saying here. My words are not meant to imply that unless a person has experienced a loss that they are not able to show true feelings of sorrow or grief at a funeral. Everybody expresses grief in different manners.
My post is meant to share where I was at in my life. I was almost 30 years old and had to learn the hard way what it meant for me to show empathy, not just sympathy.
This really resonated with me, when I was called to serve a military family. Their eight-year-old child had gone with a friend to a nearby lake and had accidentally drowned when their little canoe overturned. When the family arrived at the funeral, I sympathized with them over their loss.
However, one of the family members resonated with my heart. It was the older brother, who was 17 and getting ready to leave for Basic Military Training. After the funeral, the family stood at the cemetery and I felt impressed to walk up to the young man. Asking permission to speak freely, they granted it and I briefly in just a few short sentences shared what I had just gone through no more than about 2 or 3 months earlier.
The older brother kept nodding his head as I shared. When I finished, he stood up and walked over to me.
Giving me a hug, this tall, young man thanked me profusely for being willing to share. He told me that he had never experienced a death in his family and that my account helped him to realize that there were others who shared in similar feelings.
When all was concluded at the cemetery and the family left, I spent time walking through between the cold gravestones and wept again for the loss of my brother and because of what I was feeling for this family I had just finished serving.
On the worst day of a person’s life, they need to know that there are others who are there for them. Some need to be made aware that the shoulder they can cry on is one that has been bowed low under the weight of a loss as well.
The average family experiences a loss of a close loved one about once every 7 years. My family was not average before November 1995, and after that date, we have had several pass away with sad regularity.
One truth I seek to share is the difference between sympathy and empathy. When I express grief or sorrow with another individual, it is because I have also been there. I know what it is like to lose a 22-year-old brother to a massive heart attack, several family members to different types of cancer, the loss of a miscarried baby, and the loss of a grandbaby.
This does not make my family or I special. Death is part of life.
However, these sessions of pain, grief, and sorrow allow me to better express care for those who are in need today because of what I experienced yesterday, and because of what we all experience tomorrow.