The Art of Empathy: Sharing the Darkness of Death

Death and tragedy take new people for their own every day. Hopes and dreams are left smashed, and families and friends are left to attempt to pull these fragments back together into some semblance of “normal”. In order to understand how we as outsiders can relate to those suffering from a loss, we must consider our approach to the grievers. We mourn with them, but perhaps find ourselves at a loss for what to say or how to act. Researcher Dr. Brene Brown has studied the effects of empathy and vulnerability, and how they can relate to our authentic selves. She suggests that the difference in approach between sympathy and empathy can be key in offering ourselves as true connectors in the bridge to life after a death.

One of the points Dr. Brown makes is that empathy “fuels connection” between you and the bereaved person you care about. You may have already faced similar circumstances: there was a miscarriage, or a suicide, even a total freak accident. So many times death is not expected, not anticipated, and simply awful to comprehend. A friend’s sibling dies young, there was a murder, an overdose, or even a medical procedure that went wrong. We also encourage you not to forget that even at the end of a long life, there may still be a spouse, or children, who are longing for just a little more time with their loved one.

So at this point, you’ve been notified of the death, and want to reach out to your family or friend to extend your sympathies. This is normal and a very good thing to do. However, there is a very common fear of “saying the wrong thing” which stops some people from taking this first step. Do it anyway! The only true thing to be careful of when expressing sympathy is making “at least” statements. Do not attempt to silver-line the death during the initial process. Examples may include “at least you had 50 years of marriage”, “at least you have other children”, “at least she didn’t suffer”. The person who has experienced this loss may feel like you are trying to re-direct the conversation, or worse, ignore the very real pain they are feeling by glossing over their hurt. Instead of this type of sympathy, Dr. Brown suggests being open to your own vulnerability, searching within to “connect with something within myself that knows that feeling.”  This is can be very difficult because you are exposing a very private part of yourself. However remember that your loved one is feeling exposed, and raw. They need someone to say “you are not alone.” This type of empathy shares their dark space, and gives them permission to communicate their emotions without judgement. There is absolutely no room in this space for judgement. When they say things like “a part of me is relieved that I don’t have to take care of him anymore” or “I did everything I could to get him help, and it wasn’t enough” or “I’m so afraid that our family won’t make it through this death”, it important to simply hold them and listen. When you cannot think of anything else to say, say “you are not alone”. Let them know you are there to share their pain, and they will feel your love.

It is our hope that this explanation of empathy and vulnerability can be of assistance to you as you find yourself in situations where you want to provide support and comfort to family and friends who have experienced death. You can provide a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear, and a safe space for their truest selves to be seen and heard. Remember that you should not be expected to fill the role of counselor or therapist, so do not hesitate to suggest seeking professional help if it seems necessary. A final thought from Dr. Brown reminds us that “what makes something better is connection”. Be the friend that shares the dark space, not the one who glosses over it with platitudes. Be the friend that says, “You are not alone.”

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