Dr. Alan Wolfelt: The Importance of Empathy and Being Present

Introducing Empathy Cards: How They Help Both the Giver and Receiver

I spoke with Dr. Alan Wolfelt about a new resource he is offering that provides an innovative alternative to sympathy cards.

What is this new resource you’ve created?

I decided it was time to develop a line of Empathy cards as opposed to Sympathy cards. It’s always struck me that sympathy is fairly passive, it projects: “I feel sorry for you” but it doesn’t really engage the mourner in a way that supports the need to be present or companion them. Empathy is more active than sympathy. Empathy is about the desire to allow the mourner to teach you while letting them know that you’re going to stay present to them.

There’s a card that comes with the packet of empathy cards that explores the distinction between sympathy and empathy.

The card says: “Thank you for joining us in our mission to refashion our culture into one of empathy rather than sympathy after a loss.

When you are sympathetic to someone else, you are noticing and feeling concerned for his circumstances usually at a distance. You’re ‘feeling sorry’ or ‘pity’ for him.” I go on to talk about how sympathy is feeling “for” someone else. Empathy, on the other hand, is about making an emotional connection. It’s more of an active process in which you try to understand and feel the other persons experience but allow them to essentially teach you. Most importantly, empathy involves offering the gift of your ongoing presence and connection. It’s feeling “with” someone instead of feeling “for”.

The card continues to say: “Many unavoidable griefs of this life can be healed only with the empathy of others. As you offer your empathy to friends and family members, please know that you have my gratitude.”

There’s two different lines of these Empathy Cards. One with a more contemporary look and another with a more traditional look. We’re finding that most people are purchasing both and are probably adjusting who they use them with to the person they’re sending them to depending on the generation.

An example of an Empathy Card cover reads: “Today is always a day for caring about you.” And then you open the card and inside it says: “Whenever you need companionship I’m standing by today, next week and a year from now and every day in between. You are a priority for me. I so want to help in any way and as often as I can.” The message for these 10 cards are more about an act of empathy in allowing the mourner to know that you’re going to stay present to them which goes way beyond a message of I feel sorry for you. That doesn’t mean at times it isn’t appropriate to extend sympathy to people, let them know you’re sorry to hear about the loss but if you truly want to stay available to somebody over time learning that distinction between sympathy and empathy is critical to your helping role. Because again, empathy goes beyond sympathy.

It invites the mourner to 1): know you’re going to stay present to them over time – which our culture is not very good at because we use linear models thinking that grief lasts so long which is like asking how high is up. Then 2) it just simply is more engaging it’s more allowing the person who wants to support somebody in grief to not project that you just feel sorry, it’s that you want to learn from them and you know that they are the expert of their own experience and that you’re going to stay present not only in the near future but in the long term. As I understand it, grief isn’t something you get over it’s something you live with.

Why were these Empathy Cards created?

It was created because I observe in our culture a tendency to extend sympathy when in fact we’d be better served to extend empathy to each other as human beings who are walking the walk of grief and the need to mourn.

For years it struck me; why do we send sympathy cards when somebody has a death? We need to be able to send an empathy card. It’s been in my heart for some time and recently at the same time I was developing a response to how our culture has lost death symbols and I came up with a little ‘Under Reconstruction” pin that helps people. They wear it and then people who approach them say “Under Reconstruction, what is that?” and you’re able to acknowledge your loss and you’ll find out quickly who can be supportive.

In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s we lost an understanding of death symbols as a culture. We rapidly saw that people stopped wearing Mourning Clothes now you can’t identify who is bereaved and who isn’t and when that happened we started to project even more sympathy and less empathy for each other. I’m trying to create some ways in which we as fellow humans can, instead of just saying “I’m sorry” to go beyond that to stay present to people and to acknowledge that their lives are under reconstruction. Two ways that I’ve created recently to help in that effort and I’ll try to keep creating more ways to counter the trends that we’re seeing.

The Under Reconstruction Pin and these Empathy Cards were created in tandem as an effort to say: “Let’s not just project sympathy to a bereaved person, let’s acknowledge that your life is under reconstruction and you’ve been transformed by this loss and I want to stay present to you over a much longer period of time than in a contemporary culture where we have very short social norms. Where we give people three days off work or school and then we want them to be back to their old normal and we tend to abandon or go away. My effort for both the Empathy Cards and the Under Reconstruction Pin is an effort to extend longer term support and help our culture make a shift from sympathy to empathy.

What does it offer to people, not just to those that are grieving but otherwise?  

Particularly to the person offering support; a more active way of extending their effort to be present to the mourner. It encourages the giver of the Empathy Card for example by the content of the messages to know how important it is to outreach oriented in your efforts to help a mourner. Not to say: “If you need me, call me.” Because when someone’s in grief it causes a natural kind of passive turning inward, they don’t call you on the phone three weeks later and say: “I remember you said I should reach to you.” You have to be the one to extend that support to the mourner and I think the messages are a reminder of the giver to follow up on the content of the message that’s in the card about being empathetic and extending support and allowing the mourner to be the expert of their own experience.

That’s a well stated question on your part, it’s not only just for the receiver it’s for the giver to remember to stay actively engaged in providing ongoing support. I talk about six needs that people have when they’re in grief and one of them is ongoing support long after the event of the death. I’ve tried to create some resources for people to live that reality out. I think these are two good avenues to do that is the Empathy Cards and the Under Reconstruction Pin that I’ve come with.

To learn more about these Empathy Cards and Under Reconstruction Pins visit www.centerforloss.com.