Sympathy, with or without the tea

Deborah and John Kerr in "Tea & Sympathy"

Like every emotion we have, empathy is complicated. We all show and receive it differently.

When I’m feeling physically lousy, I don’t want or expect anyone to tell me how sorry she feels for me. I don’t complain either, maybe because my mom and dad weren’t especially empathetic souls. No one is really going to make me feel better, anyway, except maybe a doctor.

Besides, can anyone else really feel our pain, figuratively, if not literally? I think not, except in extremely profound relationships, such as moms and their kids. So what does it matter, no matter how sorry they say they feel?

I guess most of us like to have a sympathetic ear or a few words when we’re under the weather, but doesn’t a visit, a gesture or a bowl of chicken soup mean much more.

My friend D, who recently had a round of operations and chemotherapy for breast cancer, told me her sisters weren’t overflowing with empathy. They three have great relationships with each other, but D didn’t expect more, she told me. “One sister would say, ‘It’ll be okay soon,’ and the other was on her cell phone in my hospital,” D laughed.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say or how to act when someone has a serious illness or is terribly upset about something else. Do you act like everything is normal? Do you try to joke around? Do you try to be a psychologist? Do you just listen?

I used to make my friends and relatives crazy when I was upset about a boyfriend or a problem at work.  I’d go round and round till I talked myself out. That didn’t work so well. I’d feel better for two minutes and then I’d start the process again.

Even if I don’t expect much empathy from anyone, I try to show it as often as possible when someone else needs it. I know I don’t always do it exactly right, but the beauty of being FOF is knowing you have another chance.  

5 Responses to “Sympathy, with or without the tea”

  1. Helen Kenney Poore says:

    When I’m down, I just want those who love me to help make my life a little easier. It could be as simple as my husband picking up dinner or as generous as a friend offering to use her vacation time to work my store so I can take a few day off.

    I remember when my closest g/f was going through chemo, I would go with her to every treatment, huge bag of cheetos in hand and tell her stories while they pumped poison into her body. This, for me, is how you help someone…words are empty.

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  2. Duchesse says:

    Sympathy and empathy are two different responses.

    Sympathy is the expression of sorrow at another’s condition, as in “I heard you lost your job-that’s just awful!” It can be an appropriate and appreciated response; however, it is stops short of understanding the world from that person’s perspective. Sympathy is usually about judgment and agreement.

    Empathy is the deep resonance with another’s experience (regardless of whether we would feel that way or not): “I’m guessing you felt panicked and confused when you heard you were laid off.”

    (Even if we do not exactly ‘get’ how it is for them, empathy opens the door to them expressing their true state: “No, I’m not panicking, but I’m embarrassed because now I can’t take my Mother on that trip I promised.”)

    The distinction is important. The purpose of empathy is understanding, emotionally as well as intellectually. Empathy connects us to another person.

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  3. Geri says:

    Hi Pinar,

    Such great comments. Thank you you much for adding them.

    Best,
    Geri

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  4. pinar says:

    when I feel down.. I need someone knows my state and cares about it..
    that it all..
    if they overdo it.. I start to talk a lot and it hurts more.. I have read once that women get get better and forget faster buy “talking about” their pain.. and men by “not mentionning”..
    maybe I have a male approach to pain..=)

    plus we have a saying in here.. “the one who has fallen from the roof understands the one who has fallen from the roof”.. this is right but if the one who has fallen first recalls her/his pain and starts to talk about them.. so it’s complicated..=)..
    the most secure healing process for me too is going under the sheets .. like a wounded animal I want to stay still deep in my cave.. until I feel healed..

    for other people I am a good listener.. never advising or digging deeper just letting them to talk about as much as they want to ..
    love

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  5. Toby Wollin says:

    When I’m really and truly “Wish someone would take this ice pick out of my head” sick, all I want to do is get into bed and pull the covers over my head. Except. Except when I have the flu and I’m in that chills stage – then, to be blunt, the only thing that makes me not freezing to death is having my husband get into the bed with me. I’m sure readers are smiling over that but it’s the only thing that works. Not a hot shower. Not a heating pad. One big human body wrapped around mine under as many covers as I can stand. Once I’m warm enough to fall asleep, he leaves, but that’s what I require. Now, I’ve had a bunch of surgeries over the years – gall bladder, fix the bones in my ear (it didn’t), carpel tunnel repair (it did), hysterectomy. All of those were handled easily with a pain killer and pulling the covers over my head. Truly. But when I have the flu – oh, Nelly.

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