Johnathan Thomas, MBA, PhD, D.DIV
Throughout my career there are a lot of phrases that piss off people grieving, but perhaps none so much as “I know just how you feel”. Ask someone grieving to list the most annoying things people said to them in their grief. I promise this will often be near the top of the list. It is often coupled closely with the similar, “oh this reminds me of when (insert their experience here).” You would think people want empathy in grief, yet this common phrase doesn’t seem to do it. But why? What is the instinct to say this about? Why does it ruffle feathers?
In its most basic definition, ‘empathy Is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. It sounds incredibly easy but anyone who has experienced a loss knows that it suddenly doesn’t feel easy. Friends who they expected would be there for them are suddenly gone, or rushing them in their grief, saying to be strong, telling them what, when, and how to grieve. These words often leave people grieving feeling like empathy in grief is an impossibility. It feels like no one understands what you’re going through.
Shortcuts don’t work
One of the greatest misunderstandings of empathy is the feeling that we must have a similar experience to someone who is suffering in order to see or understand their pain. We see someone else’s pain and we want them to feel seen. We worry they won’t believe we can truly see them and their pain if we haven’t experienced it. So, rather than the hard work of carefully listening, attending, and supporting them, we try to take a shortcut. In an effort to seek common ground, we search our experiences for something similar. Something we, in a well-intentioned way, believe will allow us to better connect and for them to feel more seen.
This is one of those instances when our grief-support instincts miss the mark. Instead of making someone feel seen and showing them, we were present, listening, and trying to support, we show them the opposite. We make obvious that instead of being present and with them, that when they shared their pain, we looked at ourselves instead. We often unintentionally minimize their pain by taking something that is different and try to make it the same. Now, this isn’t to say we haven’t gone through things – we have. We may have experienced very real, similar, painful and difficult things. But in a moment when someone is grieving their own personal loss, one that is theirs and theirs alone, what becomes important is not what we have gone through. It is being able to focus and be present with what they have gone through.
I think my loss is helping me understand them. I swear.
If you’re feeling like I’m saying you need to filter sharing your grief experience because it is going to upset someone else grieving, I want to make one thing very clear. This isn’t just about you upsetting them by not seeing them. This is about you and really looking at whether this path to ‘understanding’ them is the best path.
When we take that shortcut to empathy, quickly moving from their experience to our own, we suddenly put our own story and experience front and center in our minds. Instead of just listening carefully and being present with their experience and feelings, we start to project our experience and feelings onto them. We start to assume our own feelings from our own similar experience must be what that other person is feeling and experiencing too. By remembering how we felt, we actually become less able to hear honestly how they are feeling. Our brains are now busy thinking about the connections to our own story, or about what we are going to say next to tell them about us. Empathy research shows that it is helpful to imagine the feelings of another, but when we dig into our own narrative to connect, we actually don’t see their experience as clearly.
Our pain impacts how we see their pain (and that isn’t always good!)
There is a lot of research that shows that we always have a tendency to see others’ pain through the lens of our own pain. There are neurons in our brain that actually contribute to this! What this means is that I use how I feel to make sense of how someone else feels. In a study around physical pain, they gave participants an electric shock. They then watched someone else receive an electric shock. Participants then how rated much they thought the other person suffered.
In part two, they gave some people a pill that reduced their personal perception of pain. Then, you guessed it, another electric shock. Next, they watched someone else (who hadn’t been given a painkiller) receive an electric shock. Guess what. They rated the other person as experiencing less pain, because they personally experienced less pain. Even though there is no reason for us to assume the other person experienced less pain, because they didn’t receive anything that would reduce pain!
That might not seem that big of a deal, but if we think about it for a moment, it can have a real impact. If we associate their experience with our similar experience, suddenly we gauge their pain based on how intense ours was. Perhaps our pain was never as bad. Or perhaps our pain has started feeling easier to carry, because we have become stronger. Though we remember our pain was bad, we don’t feel it in the same. Now when we see their pain, we may minimize it a bit because we can’t help but impose our own strength, that we have gained with time and work, on them. But they haven’t had the opportunity to gain that strength yet.
As the researcher in this study said, “If you reduce people’s self-experienced pain, if you induce analgesia [inability to feel pain], that not only helps people to deal with their own pain, but it also reduces empathy for the pain of another person,”
If you have experienced something similar you may relate deeply to another person; you may have more understanding than someone who hasn’t been through something similar. In fact, that same empathy research shows that when we have been through something, we are able to better understand it when we see another going through it than if we hadn’t. And we know that there is great comfort in meeting someone else who has been through what you have been through. This is one reason peer support groups can be helpful. It can be comforting to meet someone else who has also lost a loved one to overdose or suicide, or someone else who has lost a spouse or a child. But grief is always as unique as the individual person and their relationship with the person they lost, and we can’t forget that.
So . . . what should I do?
What is most important is to enter the interaction with the assumption that your similar loss does have value, but it doesn’t give you an automatic understanding. Then focus on listening, being mindful, present, reflecting back what you are hearing from them. Do that without comparing it to your loss or looking at it through your own experience.
In the end, it is our ability to say “we have both gone through some things. I have not gone through exactly what you have gone through. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to listen and do my best to understand” that helps. It can make a person feel more seen and heard in their grief. From that place, they know you are thinking of them, not yourself, and you are open to supporting them through their story and experience – whatever it may be.