The words sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, and yet they are distinct expressions.

In times of death, it’s customary to extend sympathy by sharing our sorrow for what’s happened. Sympathy cards are usually synonymous with condolence messages. When extending sympathy, we’re expressing concern for another’s feelings. Cards, notes, phone calls, e-mails, meals, and offers of assistance are all expressions of sympathy.

But you don’t offer empathy, you feel it. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s trying to imagine, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” And it’s the ability to act on those feelings. When being empathetic, we extend our concern by offering compassion so the bereaved feels validated; that someone has a sense of what has happened and how they might be feeling.

I think it’s easier to extend sympathy. We all know to attend the funeral, participate in mourning rites, send a card, make a donation, and keep in touch. Empathy is harder; it’s taking the time to think carefully while trying to understand how you might feel if this happened to you and what might bring you comfort.

Listening is a good example of empathy and we all know how difficult it is to do. Listening requires us to pay close attention to hear what someone has to say, without speaking or adding our personal thoughts or feelings. It takes patience to hear the same story over and over again but it is an empathetic and meaningful thing to do.

It is often through personal stories that we can discern the differences between sympathy and empathy. One mother shared that at her child’s funeral, she sat all by herself with her surviving child; everyone else sat behind her. If someone had taken a seat next to her, that would have been empathetic. Another shared that she had to make all the arrangements for her father’s funeral and reception by herself. Relatives weren’t happy with what she planned and complained to her at a time of painful loss. Empathetic folks would have helped, and those that couldn’t would have accepted what she was capable of doing and extended comfort.

We’ll all experience loss – would you prefer someone extend you sympathy or empathy?

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Robbie Kaplan

Robbie Miller Kaplan is a writer and trainer with an expertise in communications. She is the author of nine books, including How to Say It® When You Don't Know What to Say and How to Say It® In Your Job Search. In 1981, Robbie gave birth to two children; a son Aaron in January and a daughter Amy in December. Both babies died in infancy from the same congenital heart defect. It is her experiences with loss as well as a passion to make a difference with others grieving a loss that motivated her to write How to Say It® When You Don't Know What to Say. Her goal is to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about face difficult times. It is now available in individual volumes for Illness & Death, Suicide, and Miscarriage. Ms. Kaplan is a frequent guest with media outlets ranging from the CBS Early Show to the Washington Post. She has been quoted and recommended by syndicated columnists Amy Dickinson in her ASK AMY column and Joyce Lain Kennedy in her CAREERS NOW column. Her advice and books have appeared in national and regional publications, including: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Detroit Free Press, New Jersey Star Ledger, Dallas Morning News, Charlotte Observer, The State, The Indianapolis Star, LA Times, New York Daily News and web sites such as,,,, and She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from George Mason University and is MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) and Strong (Strong Interest Inventory) qualified. She has a management background with Xerox Corporation and Marriott International. Ms. Kaplan writes a monthly column for and wrote an "Ask the Expert" column for and She is a contributing author to the Strong Interest Inventory Applications and Technical Guide and has been published in PM Network,,, the magazine, Woman's Day, Writer's Digest, The Executive Female, Internal Auditing Alert, Science and Engineering Horizons, and The Woman Engineer. Ms. Kaplan is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. To Listen to Robbie's Radio show

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