Why Empathy, Not Sympathy, Is Key To Helping Others Deal With Loss

by Samantha Bun

Death is one of those topics so seldom spoken of, but it is the one thing we all have in common.

As morbid as it is, we're all going to die.

There's no evading it; it is inevitable.

As the days go by, the less I fear death.

I'm not saying I would jump to my immediate death at any given chance, but if it was to happen, I'd be okay with that.

I hope the people around me will be able to handle it the best way possible.

It has taken some time, and I've finally come to accept life is a terminal condition.

Nothing is certain.

We all go on living like we're immortal without acknowledging our mortality.

Only when death comes knocking do we acknowledge it, only to fall back into our previous illusions of life.

Just think about funerals.

The irony of death is it is such a uniting force, when hundreds of people you haven't seen in years come by to pay their condolences.

Promises are made for a reunion, but never kept.

The veil quickly fades, and we succumb to the ordinariness of everyday life.

It's the same flawed mindset we had before the passing.

Everyone returns to the same state of neglect thereafter.

It's not that I'm a pessimist.

In fact, I have a suffocating optimism and bright-eyed wonder for the world.

I've just had to experience death in my life before I was even aware I had to. At some stage, we all do.

This week, a colleague of mine (let's call her Tina) attended the funeral of her ex-boyfriend who she had remained close friends with.

She was obviously upset and should have taken a bit more time off to deal with her emotions, but I guess she thought it was more socially acceptable to come back to fulfill her role at work.

She wasn't ready for conversation, and what I noticed is that people don't know the best way to approach the conversation.

I could tell it was extremely difficult for her. Every time someone asked her how the funeral was, she would force a smile and say, "You know, it was as good as what a funeral can be."

In her eyes and in her tone of voice, what I could hear her say was, "Do you really have to ask me? It was sh*t, and I don't really want to talk about it."

I happened to be in the room while she was talking to another colleague, and she was saying she was really tired of talking to people and having to justify how she felt.

She went on to talk about events of the funeral, how she felt obligated to talk to people when she didn't want to and how she felt bad for being upset in front of his girlfriend, as his girlfriend was suffering more in comparison.

The colleague she had been speaking to agreed with her, saying it would have been awkward and difficult.

I felt like the right thing to do at the time was not say anything at all, but listen.

I remained quiet.

I realized we overcomplicate things as humans.

We constantly try to rationalize how we feel and conform to societal expectations of how we should think, feel and behave.

We talk so little about death that we don't even know how to deal with it.

We don't know how to cope with the loss, and we don't know how to help others who are experiencing loss.

When I got a moment to be alone with Tina, I decided to speak.

I told her about my experience attending the funeral for my own boyfriend, and his ex-girlfriends were also there.

I didn't once think they shouldn't be upset, and it was only because Tina was such a caring person that she thought about how her behavior would affect others.

"You have every right to be upset," I told her. "You need to let yourself grieve, and you should give yourself permission to grieve."

I continued, "There is no right way to feel, think or act, and you do not need to justify how you feel to anyone else. No one will understand your pain and your suffering."

She turned around, tears in her eyes, and said, "That's the hardest part."

Again, I didn't say a word.

I acknowledged how she felt with silence.

She said, "Thank you."

I had spent years in mourning, and the one question I hated being asked was, "How are you?"

It reminded me of when, as a 12-year-old, I asked a girl who had lost her mother the very same question.

It's difficult to answer a question like that.

It's a cross between what I really feel, how I think people want me to feel and what the standard response is.

If I say, "Good," is that really an accurate reflection of how I feel?

Am I supposed to be "good" by now?

If I say, "Not so great," then will people feel sorry for me?

Will I be met with "Awws?"

I hated the pity party.

Sometimes, the best way to be there for someone is to acknowledge his or her pain and just be all ears.

Phrases like, "Time will heal," or "Everything happens for a reason" serve no purpose.

To people suffering from grief, they do not see anything beyond the pain they are experiencing.

Phrases like these only aggravate mourners and make them feel like there is a time limit to their grief, or they were punished to be taught a lesson.

What I've come to learn is every individual's experience of death is unique.

It is easy to be sympathetic, but hard to be empathetic.

All we can do is just be there not only for, but with a person.

We need to be open to conversation, compassionate, loving and understanding.

We need to recognize the pain every person experiences is different, and we need give him or her time to deal with it on his or her own terms.

And time doesn't heal.

Time just lapses events and memories so that the pain becomes more bearable.

Given a little scratch, the pain will resurface tenfold.

My perception of death has since widened.

I've come to terms with mortality and the impermanence of life.

Nothing is permanent.

We need to stop tiptoeing around the topic and have a more open and honest communication about it.

Only then will people know how to be there for others and how to deal with loss better.

I'm honestly not sure how I will cope the next time I lose someone I love.

I know it will still hurt, but I also know I will be more accepting of this natural cycle of life.

Life is full of grand paradoxes.

We can not know courage without being in the face of fear.

We cannot know true happiness without knowing what it is to suffer.

To live is ultimately to die, and we do not know the true value of life without first having experienced death.